Home Social Construct Ham Hocks, Pig’s Feet & Chitlins: Offal And The Scraps

Ham Hocks, Pig’s Feet & Chitlins: Offal And The Scraps

by Erika Nicole Kendall

20120220-094845.jpgOne night, in watching an episode of No Reservations, I caught a glimpse of a restaurant in San Francisco that was serving sweetbread dishes for $28 a pop. Pig’s feet… $17.

Wait – sweetbreads? $28? Pig’s feet? $17?

Then, to find “modern cuisine” restaurants serving up “shredded pork” dishes, “modern” restaurants offering up “hamhock” dishes for $19… apparently the only people who appear to have a problem with eating offal are the people who originated and popularized its use in America: Blacks. I’m a little frustrated by the people who turn their noses up at eating offal – the accurate term for the entrails, internal organs and leftover parts of an animal – because it was “slave food.” I mean, let’s be clear. Our connection to pork absolutely comes from being enslaved and our responsibilities as butcher to master, but I don’t know that it deserves the ire it receives.

Back then, whenever you referred to “meat,” you basically meant pork. Mind you, we ate other meats, but they weren’t as common as pork. Possum and turtles, as nocturnal animals, were able to be caught during the night hours – the hours when slaves weren’t responsible for, well, slaving away – but with pork, the head, ears, innards and hooves were “gifted” to the slave responsible for butchering master’s hog every time “hog killing day” came around.

This wasn’t a novel or even new idea, though – when you’re used to only having access to meat when you catch it, kill it, and butcher yourself, you learn the importance of using up every part you’ve got access to. It is here that you learn that every part of the animal – much like the human body – is covered in muscle, some parts with a little more fat interspersed than others, and that the only way to survive is to figure out the wisest way to use what you’ve got.

Early African slaves were pretty creative, though. Even though the early West African diet was predominately vegetarian, they learned the art of boiling the fatty parts of meats, essentially making a nice, velvety broth for stewing vegetables. They mastered the art of cooking the fat out of fat back (bacon) and using that to fry (not deep fry, there is a difference) their vegetables, sometimes after they were coated in ground up corn kernels (also known as corn meal.) The fat doesn’t only affect texture and taste, though – many vitamins are only readily available to the body if consumed with accompanying fat.

There’s also the issue of nutrition. Meat raised today couldn’t hold a candle to meat raised prior to the industrialization of food. While pigs are, in fact, an “eat anything and everything” kind of animal, that doesn’t change the fact that they’re supposed to eat that way. They, much like many other members of the animal kingdom, are actually made to be able to survive off of ingesting anything and that “anything” helps them create healthy muscle that another living being – in this case, humans – can use.

Now, if you want to talk about the quality of that “anything” that pigs can ingest, we can… we just have to, also, acknowledge that there are pigs being grown without as much (or any) of the chemical interference and that those, too, can be grown healthily. It’s also necessary to note that those animals raised healthily without that “chemical interference,” nowadays, cost considerably more than they did once upon a time.

And, I suppose, that brings me back full circle. In a day and age where getting a healthily raised, “popular” cut of meat (like shoulder, ribs or legs) will cost you a pretty penny, why would we turn away the cheapest parts of the animal? As Blacks who were in this country prior to the industrialization of food, our original desires to live “high on the hog” came from our desires to live like the free men, the men on top, the men who owned everything, the men who – seemingly – ruled everything. Our desires to live “high on the hog,” both a play on words and a literal statement, came from an optimistic hope that we, too, would not only be able to be free, but be able to eat and feed our families the best.

Ah, but talk about “affordability” is tricky. We claim we can’t afford healthily raised meats, so instead of simply abstaining from meat (because, y’know, we can’t afford it) we accept the fact that we’re buying the cheap, poorly raised stuff. The offal – that often-stigmatized middle zone – is off limits to us as people of color. Why? Why is it slave food for us, but not for those restaurants serving it for $27 a dish? Italian immigrants make sweetbread dishes, and have for a long time. Latin cuisine incorporates cow brains and has for a long time. You can still buy them in the stores, in cans. French – and European cuisine, as well – both use offal. Us, however? Still hiding and running from our culture.

I’ve been holding onto, and using, this quote for years now, because it’s that damned good:

It reminds me of the “bike to work” movement. That is also portrayed as white, but in my city more than half of the people on bike are not white. I was once talking to a white activist who was photographing “bike commuters” and had only pictures of white people with the occasional “black professional” I asked her why she didn’t photograph the delivery people, construction workers etc. … ie. the black and Hispanic and Asian people… and she mumbled something about trying to “improve the image of biking” then admitted that she didn’t really see them as part of the “green movement” since they “probably have no choice” –

I was so mad I wanted to quit working on the project she and I were collaborating on.

So, in the same way when people in a poor neighborhood grow food in their yards … it’s just being poor– but when white people do it they are saving the earth or something.[source]

I trot that quote out all the time, because I think it’s important to acknowledge. I’ll ask it again: If we are proclaiming that we “can’t afford” to live “high on the hog” and, instead of abstaining from meat altogether choose to buy lesser quality pork with potentially deleterious effects, why turn down the cheapest parts of the animal? Look back at that quote, then read it again with a different twist:

So, in the same way, when people in a poor neighborhood eat offal in their homes, it’s just being poor — but when white people do it [in a “modern restaurant”] they are saving the earth or [sustainable or] something.

To those of us who are upwardly mobile, we’re all familiar. Assimilation is key. If you’re not in an industry that allows for (or even demands) your own personal spin on life, assimilation is vital to your ability to be upwardly mobile. Running from things that might stigmatize you as “other” (“slave food” is a ginormous example of this) are a huge part of that.

In my post about slave food not making us fat, a reader gave me pause in questioning whether or not it can truly be considered self-hatred, and I gave it genuine thought. I no longer think it’s entirely self-hatred, but merely a casualty of assimilation. You have to turn your back on a lot in order to “make it.” I think we, however, do ourselves a disservice by not only turning our backs on it but demonizing it, as well. Even though I can defend pork, I don’t eat it and haven’t eaten it in over a decade. I’m still not going to shade the person whose mother still cooks her greens with a giant hamhock or pig’s foot. (That person, of course, would be me.)

My only hope is that we raise the quality of our consumption, and leave ourselves open to the less popular cuts of an animal (that is, if you insist upon eating it) regardless of stigma… especially when that stigma is manufactured. (“White meat,” “dark meat,” anyone?) If we are genuinely and legitimately concerned about the cost of our food, then it is, in fact, in our best interests to forego any stigma and take the same route as those far more knowledgeable about sustainable consumption than ourselves. Breathe…and make broth out Exhale… and eat the damn hamhock.

The only person I know who cooks with offal is my fiancé’s mother, who was all too giddy to snatch the feet from the heritage bird we’d brought home from the farmer’s market, yesterday. She’s easily the most frugal woman I know. After writing this and looking at it this way, she might have to give me my feet back.

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Serenity February 20, 2012 - 12:24 PM

This is a damn shame! Not that I’m proud of our “Black Folks Slave Food” history, (and I’m a vegetarian) but those parts are NOT delicacies. They need not be expensive. Imagine how that will run up the prices on those chitlin buckets in the fall. Not really fair…..

Erika Nicole Kendall February 20, 2012 - 1:38 PM

Hmmm… but what makes a cut of meat a delicacy? The only thing that determines whether or not something becomes expensive is whether or not there is a demand that meets the supply (or a supply that meets the demand, your pick.) If demand grew for offal, then that’d also mean that demand would drop for things like chicken breasts and ribs. So… it might even out. The market only has but so much money to spend.

And, really, what’s not to be proud of when it comes to “Black folks slave food?” Those “slaves” ate better than most of y’all out here, today. *confused look*

taunya February 20, 2012 - 11:03 PM

I don’t care if they boil raise it or taught it to play the drums. The pig is a filthy abdomination. The pig was created for mecidine not tone consume.

Erika Nicole Kendall February 21, 2012 - 9:33 AM

Not true at all. LOL

itouti February 21, 2012 - 6:13 PM

I totally agree. Pig = rat, dog, and cat. Filthy animal created to clean up waste by eating it. I don’t understand how you can eat clean but eat an animal that by it’s very nature is dirty. You cannot clean a pig enough to make it edible.

Erika Nicole Kendall February 21, 2012 - 9:10 PM

1) I don’t eat pork, but that’s my personal choice. It’s still a source of protein, and in terms of inexpensive lean protein sources, it still counts.

2) I referred to offal – not just pork – and that includes tails (of ox or any other animal), hearts, tongues, brains, necks and feet (and beyond) of any animal. For goodness sakes, I expected more of an outcry over the fact that people ate POSSUM. PORK? Pfft, compared to possum, pork is lamb. Jeez.

3) ALL animals are dirty by nature. Catfish, in essence, is the “pig of the sea,” by your logic. Do you eat THAT?

4) I’m so amazed by the number of reasons why people demonize pork. I can’t help but wonder where this is coming from. We’re not tripping over possum or turtle (which is now considered a “delicacy”) but pork gets under people’s skin. All I said was that people need to consider foregoing the stigma and consider learning to cook with offal instead of getting cheaply produced pork. I’m so surprised this was such a controversial statement.

Angie August 7, 2012 - 9:59 AM

i agree…the pig is nasty

Jame (@jameane) February 20, 2012 - 2:56 PM

Over the holidays, a “gourmet” takeout place near my house was serving fried chitlin sandwiches. They were $8. I called my parents and we had a good laugh about the whole thing.

I think the new motto these days is, if you can’t charge top dollar with the original name and image, rename it and triple the price.

Call it offal and it is gourmet. Call it leftover unwanted parts, and no body wants it.

JoAnna February 20, 2012 - 4:23 PM

I’ve been cooking with smoked jowl for over a year now. Its cheaper than bacon, doesn’t shrink as much and adds flavor to my bean dishes and greens. I always add a neckbone to my soups (smoked or raw, and turkey, pork, lamb, beef, etc) or stews. Boneless, skinless meat tends to dry out when cooked and is really pricey! I save fish heads from the fish market in my freezer to make stock about twice a year. Those “slave food” throwaways are cheap and delicious!! They may take a little more work, but it’s worth the effort.

Julie February 20, 2012 - 11:02 PM

I am Hispanic and Southern Italian – we grew up eating the same types of food – tripe, brains, heart, pigs feet, chicken gizzards and heart, ox tails. My family immigrated here in the 1920-30s and my father always said this was good peasant food. I consider being from peasont people to be something to be proud of. We wasted nothing – stale bread makes a great soup that sticks to your ribs (sometimes too well, which is why I found your facebook page – any pointers on losing weight while still eating well is always welcome). I hate the fact that these foods are now “delicacies” and command such a high price in restaurants. They are still inexpensive at small etnic markets if you are lucky enough to live near one.

KalleyC February 21, 2012 - 9:12 AM

That’s why I’m not a huge fan of the “green” movement that’s been going on lately. Last time I checked, we were always trying to make the best out of what we already had.

That quote though about the bikers would make me mad as well. I mean, growing up, we had a bike before you even thought about cars. All the delivery people in NYC usually have bikes, and to be honest, it’s the best way to get around. I don’t see why someone would think the bike movement image had to be cleaned up, it wasn’t dirty to begin with.

As always, an excellent post.

Xay February 21, 2012 - 12:42 PM

I was wondering about this trend myself – I went to a restaurant that had oxtails on the menu listed “At Market Price”. I couldn’t believe oxtails had become that kind of product – it’s not like they are seasonal or there is a shortage.

Cole February 21, 2012 - 4:23 PM

OMG! OMG! OMG! That place is in my neighborhood!!! It’s amazing!!!! If you’re ever in SF you should go, it’ll blow your mind to the back of the room, and drag it to the front before sliding it back in your left ear. And, girl, the wine selections will make you drool! Don’t get a full glass–you definitely want to get a flight to compliment each course (better deal and it tastes so so good).

Oh, and the pig leavin’s meal at Incanto is only once a year. My unofficial tally says 4 out of 5 people think that’s the night to avoid! LOL! :-p

Don’t forget to buy one of those high-ass salami sausages to take home if you visit!!! They’re SPICY!

I know, I’m off topic, but I’m serious, you’ll probably give Chris Constantino a giant hug before you leave for the meal! I’m starting to think I get entirely too excited about eating…

Erika Nicole Kendall February 21, 2012 - 5:50 PM

LMAO I’m mad you knew exactly who I was talking about! I was trying to not put them on blast, but since you did…

Chris gave an interview with Good.is a few years back that is so unbelievably epic. I was planning on posting clips from it anyway in the coming days because it’s so key to my central argument, which is “learn how to cook what you’ve got, save a bit of money and eat well.” He seems like a kick ass dude… I just wonder what his food costs and profits look like. I’m just saying’. LOL

Nicole February 23, 2012 - 11:04 PM

Now I’m wondering the same thing! How much does it cost, Chris?!?! Inquiring minds!

Annette February 21, 2012 - 4:50 PM

Well there has always been a “green” movement in my family they didn’t call it that when during the summer my father had us plant pepper, tomatoes, cucumber, squash, etc. Since he was a country boy he was so glad to have a back yard to grow his own veges. Now that was 35 years ago in NY. We would end up giving it to neighbors his co workers and family and freezing or canning the end of season crop.

I know of so many cultures that eat pig trotter and hamhocks without all of this drama. It’s the stories and excuses we tell ourselves we need to be honest about what and why we eat. You can still eat it and lose weight, it’s about asking ourselves questions, getting to the bottom of overeating. Why are we overeating, nervous, upset? Why am I upset, how can I fix the situation or the perception of the situation? It’s about loving ourselves even if there is no one their to give you the encouragement. Be the one you need.

Naomi February 22, 2012 - 1:58 AM

Could it perhaps be mostly Black African-Americans and not so much Black Africans who might be running from the stigma? Because Africans eat many different types of meat. Pork, not so much. However, gizzards, goat brain, tripe, cow hooves, ox tails, “bush meat” (incorporates more than you want to know, including monkey, dog, cat, snake and horse), goat, ram, wild turkey, chicken feet, cow skin, goat skin, snails (variations), termites, beetles and I’m sure others are all fair game…. And there is nooooo shame in it at all.

I have also noticed in a corporate work environment, many Africans (and Indians) tend to shy away from bringing their traditional meals to work opting for a generic “ethnic” rice dish, salad or sandwich instead. Too smelly? Too weird looking? Only they know.

Don’t get me started on what Asians eat. I once saw what looked like frozen cockroaches in the frozen fish section at a Thai food market, shrink-wrapped and tagged with it’s barcode and price sticker. They were flat and about the length of a small apricot and came 4 in a pack.

So much about us was stigmatized long time ago and while racism is still alive and well today, I think many of us are in mental bondage all on our own. If we all collectively rebelled against being stigmatized and loving “everything” those before us were directly taught to hate, wouldn’t the world just have to accept it as well?

Phe February 25, 2012 - 2:49 AM

Thank You!
Other cultures have survived off of guinea pigs and pigeons, FOR CENTURIES! Yet African Amercians have a problem with the food that kept their great-grandparents nurished. Baby do you! If you like fried gizzards with hotsauce then have at it. Go into an Asian market, or a traditional Asian resturant. Some of the food MOVES! Like it can see you see it on the plate. When black folks get over the SELF hate and realize that we are still slaves in our mentality, we’ll be able to embrace the history of our forefathers that built this country, feed our ‘masters’, and helped make a way for your Proud ass!

Annette February 25, 2012 - 1:16 PM

Totally agree.

rissa May 17, 2012 - 4:22 PM

totally LOVE you for this!!! i love pork, much to the chagrin of many of my family and friends. i’ve never understood why it was so bad, i was just always told that it was horrible for you. The same goes for all the other “leftovers” we used to eat ( i’m not gonna fake, i shall not ever, save for starvation, eat chitterlings but i’ll eat anything else). I looked down on it because i was told that those foods were the reasons that black folks are so unhealthy now. Now that i’m doing my own nutritional research (#paleo #primal #westonprice), i’m back on the hog and other pieces.

Natasha May 17, 2012 - 4:31 PM

Personally, I never thought of certain parts in terms of slave food. I’m well aware of the history of these foods, and other things like neckbones or chicken feet. It’s something I simply prefer not to eat (I encountered enough of it at my Grandma’s house). I don’t get the whole deal with pigs. Most animals do something gross. Heck, people love dogs and let them lick them in the face, but that same dog would eat his poo if given the chance. I typically stay away from pork, especially highly processed kinds like sausage, ham and bacon, which have a tendency to give me migraines.

EatStylePlay April 15, 2013 - 8:24 AM

Wow…I’ve been trying to put something like this into words for years. As someone who loves cooking and eating out at restaurants I find this really enlightening. Not like Red Lobster but the type of places that are creative, and know their food. Growing up I never thought twice about certain foods..I never linked them to a negative meaning behind them. In terms of pork I was never a fan of pigs feet though..or any other part of the pig. I don’t even really like Pork Tenderloin. I just like Fried Porkchops, and I like Bacon…that’s about if for me …and whatever they use to make Pulled Pork. That still had nothing to do with thinking that the inner parts of the pig were bad.

When you travel and see all of these things that other cultures cook with you can’t even think about it as “slave food” at least I didn’t. Because people would crack me up when they would say…WHy are you eating that part…that’s nasty. Well guess what. The same protien, flesh, and cartilage in your chicken is the same as any other part of the chicken…or whatever.

That biking quote got me bothered as well!

Ashleigh September 3, 2013 - 9:24 AM

I think a lot of backlash to pork is a result of religious teachings filtering out into general culture along with the whole “slave food” stigma. Islam teaches the pig is unclean. I also have Christian family members who don’t eat pork due to religious concerns. I guess it’s a take on Judaic kosher eating? In any case, I don’t feel any animal on this earth is an abomination; this type of thinking is what led the Europeans to think they had to “civilize” us and save us from ourselves. They used the Holy Bible to “prove” that we were less than them. So I won’t do that to any animal because the same way the pig is being singled out for being “unclean” (whatever that means–our whole world is dirty), so can any other animal, including us.
As for the article, I liked the point about this being a casualty of assimilation. Once white people start doing something, it’s cool but before it was distinctly “other.” Case in point: Ying Yang comes out with the song Whistle While You Twerk 13 years ago; no one bats an eyelash. Miley Cyrus posts a video of herself twerking in a bear costume and now there are “How to Twerk” articles popping up in mainstream magazines. I do think there tends to be a backlash from our community in response to appropriation; once something from our culture becomes mainstream, it loses steam and then we find something else to do that is our “own.” I.e. Twerking is dead; Hip-Hop is dead; etc

Erika Nicole Kendall September 3, 2013 - 9:50 AM

Listen. I just… I don’t even know anymore. The twerking thing is… I don’t know.

Dorothy September 7, 2013 - 6:56 PM

In defense of Pork. At Genesis 9:3 “Every moving animal that is alive may serve as food for you. As in case of green vegetation I do give it all to you” Prior to entering the ark the Israelite were not to commune pork. But the people of the nations were aloud to consume pork. Had the vast majority of us been living at this time we would have been of the nations, thereby freely consuming pork. Upon leaving the ark the Israelite were now aloud to consume pork with the nations. Often time the clergy were not educated and merely could not make the distinction as to whom was being addressed in The Bible. This concept of pork being bad originates with God not allowing his chosen people to consume pork. Genesis 9:3 clearly now states that pork can be consume by everyone. Upon leaving the ark everybody now can consume any animal walking,swimming,creeping crawling or flying along with the vegetation of the earth. Note God did not mandate vegetarianism or vegan-ism. Nor is consuming of meat to vilified. You do what good for your body without encroaching on someone else right to consume meat. With this scripture God has said that you can eat a dog,frog,cat or whatever type of meat you chose. Amen

johnvpc December 28, 2013 - 8:46 PM

I have THOROUGHLY enjoyed this entire thread of comments which I just happened to stumble upon while searching the web about the anatomy of ham/pork hocks. However, I do want to clarify for Dorothy (and any others who may be interested in the Hebrew and/or Christian Biblical aspects of anything in this conversation) that the restrictions placed upon the Israelites against the consumption of ANY animals that were NOT BLED OUT at the time that they were slaughtered, and against the consumption of any BLOOD at all, (see Leviticus, Chapter 17), that were imposed upon the Israelites DID continue upon Christians into the future even though it was MADE CLEAR that Christians, unlike the Israelites who had been under the Mosaic Law, could eat ALL KINDS of animals (see Acts, Chapter 15). BTW, I happen to eat a fair amount of various pork products (just sayin’).

Brian Bailey October 9, 2015 - 6:04 PM

I have always loved the offal cuts of meat from being raised with deep South aunts and uncles and my grandfather Jamaican and southern cooking. Recently switching to a Paleo-full fat diet I consider myself lucky to still live in a hardworking and poor side of St Louis and still can find beef liver, whole pork hocks with foot attached, brains, neckbones, oxtails, catfish, and goat for $1-2 a pound. Actually came here from googling offal recipes so thanks for the article. It was a well informed read. The last thing I cooked was a ham hock terrine with mashed sweet potatoes and collard greens.

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