He doesn’t know this, but chef John Currence captured my heart over 10 years ago at a Southern Foodways Alliance symposium in Oxford, Mississippi. Pableaux Johnson, a fellow journalist and writer for this magazine who was also in attendance at the event, told me that the chef at City Grocery was going to knock my socks off.
Although I had heard about the chef, I had never met him.
“Is he that good looking?” I asked.
“Not HIM Marcelle. HIS COOKING,” Pableaux shot back.
And indeed Pableaux was right. When I gobbled up a chunk of butter-tender batter-fried pork ribs, I moaned in pleasure. A few years later, again in Oxford with the SFA, I found my way to Big Bad Breakfast, another of Currence’s eateries. Nursing a hang-around from way too much Jack Daniels the night before, I staggered into the retro-chic diner and before I uttered a word, a mug of coffee was plunked down in front of me along with a menu. Bleary-eyed, I pointed to items on the menu – house-cured Tabasco/brown sugar bacon, a couple of eggs over easy, biscuits and grits. Before I could finish my first cup of coffee, another arrived along with a loaded plate. A small dish of peach jam, which I was told was made by Currence’s wife, accompanied my order. In no time, my head felt ever so much better. My tummy settled down and I was feeling wide-eyed and bushy-tailed. Ah, my secret love had astounded my taste buds once again.
When my husband gifted me at Christmas with John Currence’s book Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey, it appeared that John and I shared not only the love of all things pork, but also the respect and reverence for all things southern, like canning, preserving and pickling locally-grown items. My fondness for the pig began at an early age. When I was a youngster, I was often dropped off at my grandfather Pop-Pete’s farm in rural St. Martin Parish to spend a weekend. Early in the mornings, hand-and-hand, we made the rounds checking on the animals in the barnyard. There were eggs to be picked, chickens and ducks to be fed, and cows to be milked. Our last top was always the pigpen.
“Come on Ti-Black. Sit here on the fence while I check the hogs. They should be about ready for our boucherie.” (I am named after my father Marcel. His nickname was Blackie so Pop-Pete called me little (petit) Black – shortened to Ti-Black.)
The annual boucherie (pig slaughter) was usually held the first weekend in December and it was a dawn-to-dusk event. Aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and farm workers gathered early in the morning to set up work ables under the live oaks while a Cajun fiddler tuned his instrument.
Once the pig was killed, the men worked quickly butchering the meat into hams, loins, shoulders and chops. Chunks of pork covered in a thick layer of salt were stored in large crocks to cure during the winter months to be used later in seasoning beans and soups. Generously seasoned slabs of bacon and pieces of pork (think tasso) were destined for the small smoke house on the farm. The pig feet (hocks) and yes, even sometimes the lips, were pickled for snacks. Smoked hocks were added to pots of braising cabbage or greens. (We never did pickle ears, but we did have a pastry treat called les oreilles du cochon.
The women cut up the pigskin to make cracklings (gratons) in the large cast-iron kettles arranged over roaring wood fires. The trimmings were used for making sausage, boudin, hogs head cheese and a delicious backbone stew. Thinly sliced sweet potatoes were fried in the rendered lard. Ground pork caramelized with onions was the base of the ubiquitous rice dressing. Every part of the pig except for the squeal was used.
Thus, pork showed up regularly on our dinner table.
From late spring through early fall Sunday was all about our backyard barbecue featuring pork ribs, chops and sometimes chicken. Papa and my brothers Henri Clay and Baby Brother Bruce tended the wood fire in the 50-gallon barbecue pit fashioned by Uncle Pomp, an incredible welder. I must mention that Uncle Pomp had also created a spit to fit over the pit that operated by a small electric motor. For Easter, Memorial Day, 4th of July and Labor Day, a small pig was fattened and injected with a homemade marinade before being trussed on the spit. (Back then, before Cajun Injectors, Papa and Pomp borrowed large injectors from the local veterinary to “stick” the pig.)
I must also give a nod to Mama’s famous pork roast studded with cloves of garlic, slivers of onions and bell peppers seasoned with salt and cayenne was the star of many a holiday menu.
Whatever the occasion, Mama’s potato salad made with homemade mayonnaise, and rice dressing were the invariable sides. And yes, like most areas of the South, coleslaw and beans were usually included on the barbecue menu. We favored Aunt Eva’s chilled creamy slaw perked up with lots of freshly ground black pepper. Canned pork and beans were tinkered and toyed with, and my friend Jet (from Meridien, Mississippi who died much too young) showed us how to make what he called “mean beans.”
Also like other areas of the South, there was always what we called a relish tray that was passed around the table at barbecues and other family gatherings. Our tray included pickled mirlitons, pickled okra, pickled watermelon rinds along with corn relish and chow-chows that were stored in a small closet off the kitchen that Mama called her Pickle Palace.