"I cant' state it any more succinctly: Pork is and has been and always will be my favorite meat. But, after all, I was born and bred in North Carolina and have yet to meet a fellow Southerner who didn't love, respect, and, indeed,understand pig like no other American. I could almost say, in fact, that pork is my birthright, that I was virtually weaned on the inimitable sight, aroma, and taste of hog, and that no childhood memories are more indelible than those connected with the mighty pig."
--James Villas, from the Preface to PIG
I can't tell you how I came across American Taste, James Villas' first book focusing on the state of cooking in the U.S. Villas, was then food editor for Town & Country magazine (1982). He was also part of the country's culinary royalty--right up there with Julia Child, James Beard, Craig Claiborne, Gael Greene and others. This was pre-Food Network days--long before Top Chef and other culinary showbiz nonsense invaded the culture. Villas was fascinating—a Southern boy, well-educated with a knowledgeable palate, and a generous expense account. While he covered the food scene, his preferences--no prejudices--were evident right from the beginning. This man loved French food, but he was Southern through and through. His highly entertaining style with descriptive "abominations" and "revoltings" recklessly strewn throughout his paragraphs was fun, and he certainly knew what he was writing about. Since then Villas has produced fifteen cookbooks, quite a few of them on Southern food. But in his last three cookbooks, mature masterpieces all, he is writing at the top of his game about food he clearly loves. I loved Bacon and The Glory of Southern Cooking, but they have served as the appetizer and first courses to the book I think he will long be remembered for, PIG: King of the Southern Table (Wiley; May 2010; $34.95; 978-0-470-19401-0).
I'm with Villas whole hog here. No other meat for me comes close to the variety and flavor of pork and how wonderful to have a book that not only celebrates hog but unequivocally demonstrates the range of recipes that use up the whole animal. There's no beating around the Disney bush here. Villas shows how practical, creative and thrifty Southerners are more like their European counterparts in France and Italy, who waste no part of the hog, cooking every part of the animal without being squeamish and making something delicious of it. I would have to go to the South to sample hog's head, pig's ears, fatback, blood pudding, boudin, livermush, mountain oysters, pickled pork, or souse. Fortunately for the rest of us, there are lots of other part of the pig that we eat: spareribs, pork loin, tenderloin, chops, ham, sausage, bacon, baby back, country and regular spareribs, and ham hocks. Villas is ardent about southern hams particularly Smithfield hams (with sources for ordering them), the distinction between barbecuing and grilling, as well as the types of sauces, dips and dry rubs used, which vary from region to region. There are plenty of fascinating social traditions that go with barbecue from how it is served to how it is eaten. Before plunging into the recipes, Villas discusses the merits of southern bulk sausage, which he states is an essential ingredient in southern cookery. He heaps scorn on "the overly lean or fatty, tough, tasteless, frozen, commercial products found elsewhere in the country," and urges readers to make their own where the cook can choose the right cuts of pork, and combine the right ratio of lean meat to fat, and just the right seasoning, which he insists should only be freshly ground pepper, powdered dried sage and red pepper flakes or cayenne.
Villas then produces and vast variety of recipes which covers everything from appetizers and salads, soups, stews, casseroles, chops, cutlets and steaks, to pies, hashes, burgers, roasts, ham, sausage and bacon, barbecue and ribs, variety and specialty meats, vegetables, rice and breads.
I want to cook my way through PIG and serve to my guests many of Villas' savory and descriptive recipes: Roast Pork Tenderloin Stuffed with Honeyed Apples and Pecans, Sausage and Leek Buffet Casserole, Slab Bacon and Mushroom Strata, Maw Maw's Mustard Pork Chops and Dumplings in Cider, Party Country Ham Deviled Eggs, Butter Beans and Bacon Salad, Country Ham, Pork, and Cheddar Loaf, Florida Mango-and Prune-Stuffed Pork Loin, Fresh Ham Braised in Beer with Mustard Glaze, Aunt Bunny's Bacon and Sausage Soufflé, Bacon Waffles, South Carolina Mustard Barbecue, Barbecued Leg of Pork with Tennessee Table Sauce, Cajun Dry-Rub Barbecued Spareribs, Louisiana Red Beans and Rice with Picked Pork and Piggy Spoon Bread. The chapter on Barbecue and Ribs includes recipes for various sauces and dry rubs, and the section on breads, muffins and biscuits--all containing pork--offer fascinating regional baking at its best.
I'm equally intrigued by the chapter on Variety and Specialty Meats, and would love to sample Miss Edna's Pork Liver and Jowl Pudding, Pork Sweetbreads, Bacon and Mushroom Skewers, and Hog's Head Stew.
We're in the midst of a great revival of interest in pork these days with restaurants that specialize in serving whole roasted pigs. There are a few farmer producing the kind of fabled, fully fatted hogs that most Americans enjoyed before the fat police descended on us, and leaned the animal up to a point of toughness where you have to brine it before you can cook it. Star chefs are restoring the "mighty hog," to the kind of culinary glory it richly deserves. In PIG: King of the Southern Table James presides over this revival with a personal, opinionated, deeply felt cookbook--just in time for us to savor the elevation of our favorite "other white meat.
Makes 6 servings
Scalloped potatoes with lots of butter and cheese have been a staple in Southern homes for centuries, but only in Virginia have I encountered the dish made with the state’s incomparable country-cured ham—simply called “Virginia ham” in the Old Dominion. Do remember that you need to use dry russet potatoes for any gratin, and if the potatoes seem to be drying out after 35 or 40 minutes, just add a little whole milk, basting them slightly to produce a golden crust.
4 medium russet potatoes (about 2 pounds), peeled and sliced ¹⁄8 inch thick
1 cup finely diced cooked country ham
½ cup chopped fresh chives
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
¾ cup grated Parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces
1 cup half-and-half
1. Preheat the oven to 375°F.
2. Butter a 1½ to 2-quart gratin or baking dish and arrange alternate layers of overlapping potato slices and ham, sprinkling a few chives over each layer and seasoning with salt and pepper. Sprinkle ¼ cup of the cheese over the top, dot with the butter, pour the half-and-half over the top, and bake till the potatoes are tender, about 45 minutes, basting from time to time with the liquid. Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top and bake till golden brown, about 10 minutes longer.
3. Serve piping hot directly from the dish.
Makes at least 10 servings
This is the relatively dry, spicy style of pork barbecue (with a little skin crackling) for which eastern North Carolina is so renowned and that is featured at hundreds of barbecue joints and social pig pickin’s throughout the region. Traditionally, whole hogs are slowly smoked on huge grates over hickory and/or oak fires; the cooked meat is either chopped or pulled; and, unlike the sweeter, tomatoey sauces (or dips”) used for Lexington-style barbecue in the western part of the state, the vinegar moppin’ sauce here is not unlike the simple hot pepper sauces of Thomas Jefferson’s day. Given the impracticality of digging a large pit in the ground (or acquiring an enormous metal smoker) and roasting a whole pig, a very good approximation of eastern-style Carolina ’cue can be accomplished with pork shoulder and an ordinary kettle grill. Typically, this barbecue is served with coleslaw, Brunswick stew, maybe baked beans, hush puppies, and either beer or iced tea. Since the chopped barbecue freezes well in airtight bags or containers, you really should consider roasting two shoulders.
One small (1½- to 2-pound) bag hickory wood chips
One 10-pound bag charcoal briquets
2 cups white vinegar
1 cup cider vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon Tabasco sauce
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
One 9- to 10-pound pork shoulder butt (all skin and fat left on)
1. In a pan of water, soak 6 handfuls of the chips for 45 minutes.
2. Open one bottom and one top vent on a kettle grill, place an aluminum drip pan in the bottom of the grill, stack charcoal briquets evenly around the pan (not in the center), and ignite the coals. When the coals are ashen (30 to 45 minutes), sprinkle 2 handfuls of the soaked chips evenly over the hot coals. Place the grate on the grill about 6 inches over the coals.
3. In a nonreactive bowl, combine the vinegars, sugar, red pepper, Tabasco, salt, and pepper and stir till the sugar is dissolved and the sauce well blended. When the coals are ready on the grill, position the butt fat side up on the grate over indirect heat, mop it with the sauce, close the lid, and cook for 3 hours, mopping the meat every hour and replenishing the coals and chips as they burn up. Turn the butt over, close the lid, and cook till the meat is very tender, 2 to 3 hours longer, mopping every hour and replenishing the coals and chips as needed.
4. Transfer the butt to a chopping board, remove and discard excess fat, and either chop the meat and crisp skin coarsely or pull into shreds. Transfer the meat to a roasting pan, drizzle about 1 cup of the sauce over the top, toss well, cover with foil, and keep warm.
5. To serve, mound the barbecue on plates or hamburger buns and serve with the remaining sauce on the side.