Monday, June 29, 2015

Glorious Fatback

It seems that many folks I meet these days, under a certain age, say that they do not like vegetables.  This is incredible to me, because I'm some what of a vegetable fanatic.  Growing up on the farm and in rural communities, huge varieties of fresh vegetables are a part of life.  It has often been joked that mid-summer in the south requires constant vigilance because, the moment you turn your  back, someone leaves a sack of squash on your doorstep or slips it through an open car window.  When vegetables come into season int he south, they come in! Everyone with a garden and even a slightly green thumb is overwhelmed with produce.  Truly, our calendars would be more appropriately marked by frost dates, the peak times for vegetables and hunting seasons than by months.

Life in the south revolves around food.  So, when someone tells me they don't like vegetables, I have to enquire as to the root cause.  Invariably, it is because they have been raised on unseasoned vegetables.  Their parents fell for the anti-fat and anti-salt fads of the 1970s- early 2000s, which are now being proven very misguided.  Fed a diet of bland, low salt vegetables, seasoned with no animal fats... who could help but loose their zest for nature's bounty?

Although vegetables can be seasoned with anything from olive oil to butter, so long as salt is included,  they is no better seasoning than that traditional southern staple, FATBACK!  Fatback is merely a slice of salt cured fat from the back of a hog.  However, the flavors it imparts to cooked - and I mean old style, cooked until its really done (as opposed to blanched, steamed, sautéed, etc... al dente... more trendy or fancy cooking styles) vegetables, is unparalleled.  Butter beans are not beans without fatback..... collard greens are not collard greens without fatback..... stewed squash is not stewed squash without fatback.... few vegetables can reach their apex of flavor without the clear, unctuous, rendered, salty fat of the hog.  Fatback brings out the depth, the savoriness and the sweetness of vegetables.  Fatback makes vegetables a meal!

You can buy fat back either sliced or in larger pieces that you can cut.  It should be mostly white in color and, if you can give it a sniff, smell fresh.  Old fatback can "rust", or oxidize, and this will be apparent by darkening or a stale odor.

To use fatback, start with an empty pot or pan.  Put in your fatback and turn the heat up to about  medium - depending on your stove, a bit lower may work better.  As the fatback cooks, oil will render out of it.  Do not let it smoke.  The fatback is done once it becomes opaque/clear.  Take out the fatback and reserve to a plate at this point.  Then, toss in your chopped vegetables and cook them until done, salting and peppering to taste.  I can't think of a single southern vegetable that isn't excellent cooked this way.

The fun isn't over though..... now, you have the ultimate southern snack, FRIED FATBACK!  Fried fatback puts the potato chip to shame.  It is crispy, salty, crunchy, rich and light all at the same time.  Once your fatback has cooled, give a piece a bite and see if it is crisp.  If not, put them on a pie pan or sheet pan, etc and bake them at 200 - 250 degrees to finish the cooking.  You'll know they are done when they appear dry, light brown and have drawn up a bit.

All that is left is to slap your cardiologist with all the recent studies proving that low fat and low salt diets are not only unhealthy, but worse for you than high salt, high fat diets.  ENJOY!

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Possum and "Ruralistic" Food Philosophy

Several seemingly unrelated thoughts have been nagging at me over the past week in a disjointed fashion.  Oddly, or perhaps appropriately, enough they came together the other night as I dodged a possum.  I was passing through a very rural area, on my way home late at night when a huge possum walked into the road.  It was nearly medium dog sized!  I swerved and it turned back.  My first thought was that it would make someone a very good supper if it doesn't get run over before hunting season.  My thoughts drifted to memories of roast possum and sweet potatoes, a true southern meal that few in our era have experienced.  The fresh, cleaned and trimmed possum is slowly roasted with sweet potatoes so that the potatoes slowly become yams in the rendered fat.  The meat is rich and tender... hinting at both pork and chicken.  The gravy is actually indescribable.....

As I was pondering how just few people these days have ever tasted possum, it occurred to me that perhaps just as few have tasted speckled butter beans or the odd cuts of pork in which southerners delight.  I began to wonder if there could ever be true, traditional southern food divorced form its roots in (for what I will call for lack of a better term) rural-ism.  We have several large cities in the south - like Atlanta, Charlotte and Nashville - but even in these steel and concrete jungles, the southerner delights in finding little produce stands with home-grown vegetables and little mom and pop restaurants that specialize in regional family foods like "chicken and pastry" or fried catfish just beyond the constant roar of the belt-line highway.

The foods southerners crave, celebrate and make legendary are rural.  They are the heirloom vegetables, the livestock raised with care, the wild game and fish, the old family recipe for a special pie... even a sip of moonshine or home made wine.  This is our raison d'etre.  This is what we seek on the weekend or take an out of town guest to experience.  This is our heritage and we hold it dear.  Can this heritage exist should we loose our agrarian, outdoorsman and craftsman culture?

Can one cook traditional southern food with only the tasteless, imported produce and anemic beef/pork/chicken to be found in the modern grocery store?  Truly, we live in an age of abundance an convenience.  There is a bounty at our fingertips... but does it satisfy?  My local grocery stores are very upscale, and even have some ownership in my home state, but the foods they sell are not the foods of my youth on the farm.  If I crave a small "pickling" cucumber, should I have to satisfy for a bloated, wrinkled, cucumber from the grocery store?  If I crave pork, should I have to settle with the malodorous product of the largest pork producer in America.... which now rests on what was once my family lands and fouls the river my people fished and boated for centuries?  I can drive 20 miles to shop at a small, independent grocery store in a nearby town that buys from local farmers or shop at a produce stand or farmer's market.  But, well... I "know from good", as they say.  I also have the mobility and time to seek out good food.  Many do not, nor do they know they should.

I wonder if real southern food can exist without the agrarian, rural nature of the south.  The small, family farmer, rancher or craftsman has no ally in modern politics.  The Republican and Libertarian parties see him as a relic, who should be retrained for a more modern, efficient means of making a living.  They push "free trade" deals in which nations negotiate and assign people to jobs like pawns on a chess board.  Their concept of farming is the huge agricultural multinational corporation, not the old man in over-alls.  The quality and taste of the food produced does not factor into a purely economic equation.  The Democrats, Greens and Socialists view the traditional southerner as everything they despise and fear.  He is the man who "clings to his guns and religion", works hard, provides for himself and his family and goes to church on Sunday.  He wants nothing from the government other than national defense and the rule of law, and wants to pay as little as possible in taxes.  They see the traditional southerner as a dangerous primitive, who should be either eradicated or re-educated.  Perhaps anyone who is arrogant enough to believe that they can shape human events sees them self as an elitist puppet-master, manipulating the masses to create their own utopia. Perhaps the simple man who is free to believe in unpopular things and lead an inefficient life in pursuit of his own idea of the American dream is destined to be the eternal enemy of the elitist political master.

I find little solace in knowing that our Founding Fathers, men like Jefferson, Madison and Washington were agrarian southerners, because modern politics and culture has abandoned their principles.  These great patriots envisioned a nation of small farmers and craftsmen, who would care for their own properties and provide for their own families, and that government should only exist to protect and regulate the mutual and beneficial arrangements between farmers and craftsmen.  This vision, enshrined in our founding documents drew millions of immigrants who sought the promises of those original words, "life, liberty and the pursuit of property"... property for framing, ranching, hunting and fishing.  They believed that "Nature's God" gave man the right to pursue nature's bounty and that there in lay our "happiness".

I fear that "ruralism" has slipped away... perhaps too far to retrieve it.  But, I will again quote William F. Buckley in saying that my mission is to "stand athwart history, yelling stop!"  Although, we will likely end up like the possum - a primitive, even pre-historic creature caught int he headlights of the oncoming rush of of what may be best described as fascistic modernism, I invite you to join me in Reclaiming Southern Food!  Succeed or fail, at least we will eat well.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Air Dried Country Sausage

When I was very young, my family made sausage at home.  My great grandfather raised hogs, had his own smoke house and was an artist with pork, of French Huguenot descent.  He smoked country hams and bacon, made sausages, liver pudding and head cheese, and rendered the delicious lard that helped make my family's cooking so very good.  After he passed away, at the age of 96, my grandmother stopped making her own sausage.  I was able to get her sausage and head cheese recipes though, and I will be sharing those on this blog in the near future.  Some of our distant cousins operated a small grocery store and made sausage in house, so that is where we bought our sausage for most of my formative years.

The great specialty sausage made by my family was air dried country sausage.  Air dried country sausage is very difficult to find outside of southeastern North Carolina and South Carolina.  Last winter, I learned that one of the few independent grocery stores that still made it in house was closing down.  This store was one run by those distant cousins I mentioned.  After nearly 100 years of selling fresh produce and operating a real butcher shop, they were forced out of business.  They could no longer compete with chain stores in our era of intense brand consciousness and in a time when so few people cook from scratch.  It was for this reason that I returned briefly to my ancestral home county, to buy all the sausage they had left and to learn how to make it myself.

I was fortunate to be able to speak with the sausage makers in the butcher shop and to learn the basics.  I was told, "Back on the farm, we made up a lot of sausage every year at hog killing time.  It was just country sausage - basically half lean and half fat, but we go a little leaner in the store.  We just mixed in salt, black pepper, crushed red pepper and sage.  Now we use a standard country sausage seasoning that comes pre mixed.  We didn't use any pink salt back then, but we have to use a little nitrate now - the government requires it and it gives it more of the color people want.  We'd make all our sausage loose, wrap it in paper.  Then, after the the casings were all washed, we'd stuff some in casings and dry them to preserve them.  The casings were just hog intestines.  We would use the bigger ones for sausage and save the rest, and any we didn't use for sausage, for chitlins.  The dry sausage was just a way of preserving the sausage back when we didn't have freezers and such.  It would hang up in the kitchen or the larder and if any mold grew one it, we'd just wipe it off with vinegar.  But, the white mold sometimes gave it a better flavor.  The old folks liked theirs dry and hard, covered in mold - like dried salami.  We wipe it down just about every day in the store.  People don't want to see any mold any more, even if it does make the sausage better."

In the photos, you will see some very dry sausage and some that is fresher.  The length of time it has been hung determines the dryness.  In the store, the sausages were hung in the nifty screened case pictured above, to keep vermin away (not that there were any vermin, but the case is required by law).

To cook dried sausage the way my mother taught me, simply put the amount you want in a pan, cut into serving sized portions, add a little water, put the lid on and let it simmer for a few minutes at medium high heat.  Then, remove the lid and let the water cook out, add a little oil and brown the sausage.  This simple air dried country sausage is far too delicious and far too easy to make for this tradition to slip away.