16. It’s difficult for northerners to appreciate the importance of pork in the traditional southern diet for both the enslaved and the free. In his classic study, Hog Meat and Hoecake: Food Supply in the Old South 1840-1860, Sam Bowers Hilliard said that in the old south, if cotton was king, the pig was the queen.
With our modern devotion to fast-food hamburgers and American-style tacos, we may overlook that even today, across the southeast, “barbecue” means pork, whether as pulled pork or ribs.
(Ribs and pulled pork at Central BBQ in Memphis)
Historically, there were good reasons for this. Across the heavily-forested southeast, developed land was at a premium. Few farmers were willing to create cattle pastures or set aside extra acreage for corn when that same land could be used for cotton. The omnivorous hogs could be turned loose in the woods for all or most of the year and do just fine, feeding on acorns and chestnuts and whatever else they happened to dig up.
There also seems to have been a preference for the taste of pork over beef. We need to keep in mind that both pork and beef taste different today than they did two or three hundred years ago. More importantly, pork was more amenable to curing with salt or smoke (think of ham or bacon), an important consideration in the days before refrigeration.
The smokehouse at Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation
Traditionally, hogs were butchered after the first frost, often between Thanksgiving and Christmas, or in January in the deep south. Cold temperatures allowed the meat to be processed without spoiling in the heat. The meat was preserved for the plantation first, including the salt pork rationed to the slaves, and then any surplus could be marketed.
Everyone was involved in hog butchering, whites and blacks, men and women, slave and free. The men did the killing and butchering, the women cleaned and prepared the meat, and the children performed tasks like gathering firewood, carrying water, and so on.
However, the meat was not necessarily divided equally. Normally, ol’ Massa kept the prime cuts— the hams, loins, and chops. The enslaved might be given the parts that the whites refused to eat—feet, tail, scrapple and neckbones, the head, jowls, ears and snout, the skin (as cracklins), and a bucket of guts—the tripe, and maw, and the small intestines—the chitterlings (chitlins). The latter needed to be eaten quickly, and so hog-killing time also became a feast time. Chitlins is still a traditional holiday dish in many African American homes.
Many masters may have left the guts for their slaves for another reason. Cleaning and cooking these is labor-intensive and unpleasant. As Adrian Miller has pointed out, in some European kitchens, intestines were considered a delicacy. Therefore, some masters may have given the guts to the slaves on the presumption that some would end up on his own table, after his slaves had done the work of preparing and cooking them.
Part of the African heritage was that black cooks could be very creative in making the most of those cast-off parts, so that nothing was wasted, using “everything but the squeal.” As noted before, in many one-pot stews, meat was used to season the vegetables, and wasn’t the main item. This is seen today in the custom of cooking vegetables from greens to beans with meat, often cheaper cuts such as smoked ham hocks. Or boil up some neckbones and see what miracles that broth can perform on rice. Yet there was a reason Massa wanted to live “high on the hog.” No matter how tasty, there’s precious little meat on a pig’s foot or neckbone, and it takes patience to suck away what’s there.
With the Great Migration, these southern staples became comfort foods for African American newcomers in northern cities. By the 1960s, they became known as “soul food,” intended for urban blacks to take pride in their roots.
Others, such as the Black Muslims, rejected these foods, especially pork, as a “slave diet,” a sign of oppression. Today, some blame “soul food” for many health problems in the African American community. (I’m not sure this is fair, but that can wait for later posts.) In any case, for both better and worse, the legacy of the food choices that were dictated or inspired by slave owners and the plantation system is still with us all, even 150 years after the end of the Civil War.