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Southern Food: Pulled Pork Above the Mason Dixon Line

By Cindy Murphy


Tags: Cindy Murphy, Southern food, Recipes, Pulled pork recipe,

CindyMurphyBlog.jpgAs a kid growing up in Michigan, I didn’t have the pleasure of eating Southern food. Mom and Dad’s ancestors were from Austria-Hungary. Mom’s parents emigrated from there, landing on Ellis Island before making their way north to Detroit; it was Dad’s great grandparents who made the trip across the ocean generations earlier. I was more likely to come home from school to find goulash, or kielbasa and sauer kraut cooking than pinto beans and rice. Ham hocks? Never heard of them. The greens us kids wrinkled our noses at weren’t collards, turnips, or mustard greens, but were the Swiss chard and beet greens that came from our garden. The closest I ever got to cooking Southern-fried chicken was when I worked as a part-time cashier at KFC after school when I was a teenager and heard the fryers sizzling from the kitchen behind the counter.

I became a little more exposed to Southern cooking when I joined the Army right after graduating high school. Corn bread was a staple in the mess hall in basic training; I thought it tasted like gritty yellow cake. Enlisting as a food inspector, my first assignment after training was overseas. One of the first things I did at the commissary on base (the military’s equivalent of a grocery store), was reject a shipment of frozen chitlins as being “unfit for human consumption.” Heck, I didn’t even know what a “chitlin” was, let alone know that it was normal for them to be filled with fecal matter until boiled properly.

Then I met Keith, born and raised in the South. The first trip home to meet his family in South Carolina was, to say the least, a culinary adventure for me. His dad made me grits for breakfast – I didn’t like them, but then again, I didn’t like the Cream of Wheat, or oatmeal my Mom made either. One taste of fried okra at dinner was enough to make me swear under my breath that if Keith EVER cooked it in our kitchen, I’d take away his cast iron cornbread skillet for good – and if he didn’t promise, there’d be no “our” kitchen.

His mother offered me a glass of iced tea (to no doubt to wash down the okra slime with), and after a syrupy sip, it was all I could do to keeping from spitting it across the table. The sickeningly sweet taste came as a complete surprise; I’ve never been a tea drinker anyway, but the “sweet tea” was a far cry from the iced tea I knew. I’m sure my forced smile appeared as sickly-sweet as the tea tasted. It was actually more of a grimace, and it was about this time that my then-future mother-in-law started referring to me as “the Damn Yankee.” My sweet father-in-law just chuckled and shook his head. My future husband laughed so hard I thought he was going to hurt himself falling off his chair.

Twenty-some years later, I’ve still never fried chicken; nor has okra ever been served in our kitchen. Corn bread though, is nearly as much a staple for us as it was in basic training (I prefer the sweet gritty yellow-cake kind), and mustard greens are a must in my vegetable garden….though I sauté them in olive oil and balsamic vinegar instead of cook them with bacon drippings. And this winter, I’ve learned to make pulled pork!

Pulled pork sandwich with pears

A few years ago, a bunch of us visited friends in North Carolina for a “Girls Weekend” and ended up at their small town festival. See that smile on my face in the photo that appears on all of my blogs? It’s a pulled pork smile; I’d just finished my first taste of this traditionally North Carolina dish sometime between getting flung from the mechanical bull and rolling my eyes at a really bad Elvis impersonator. On a bun, with a side of coleslaw and an ear of corn, it was served in its most traditional way. It was simply melt-in-my-mouth delicious.

But make it at home? It seemed like a daunting task. “Pulled pork” just sounds as if it’d be a labor-intensive, even strenuous, dish to make. Not to mention it’s typically done in a meat smoker, which I don’t have. I ran across a recipe though, that sounded easy enough. All I’d need was a crock-pot and some time.

To a pulled pork purist, the meat is never chopped or shredded. It’s pulled into slender, extremely tender strands with a fork. Pork shoulder is the cut most commonly used because it is generally has a fatty joint which provides a natural baste during the long cooking process; leaner cuts tend to dry out. Most of the fat and the connective tissues dissolve during extended cooking, making it fall-off-the-bone tender, and easy to pull apart. The recipe I used is as follows:

Pulled Pork (makes 8 cups)

Trim 7 pound pork shoulder roast of any excess skin and fat. In a small bowl, combine 3 tablespoons chili powder, 1 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, and rub mixture all over pork roast until thoroughly covered. Place 1 sliced large onion and 4 minced garlic cloves in bottom of a 4 to 6 quart slow cooker, then add roast and 1 cup of your favorite barbecue sauce. Pour water over roast until covered, about 4 cups.
Cover slow cooker and cook pork on high until very tender and met falls off bone, about 6 hours. Carefully remove pork from slow cooker and reserve on a platter. Strain cooking liquid into sink, reserving onion. Return pork and onion to slow cooker; shred meat with a fork and add 2 more cups of barbecue sauce. Cook on high until heated, about 8 minutes.

The key to obtaining the tenderness is slow cooking. I made this dish twice this winter, using an approximately 3- to 3 1/2-pound shoulder roast both times. Because the weight of the roasts were less than what the recipe called for, during the first attempt I set the heat on my crock pot to low and cooked it for six hours. The roast was perfect – it fell from the bone and took no effort at all to pull the pork apart with a fork.

The second time around, I got a late start and didn’t have six hours left in the day. I figured since the roast was about half the weight of the 7 pound roast in the recipe, I’d just half the cooking time – it cooked for three hours on the high setting. The meat was tender, but it was difficult to pull with a fork, and I ended up tearing it with my fingers. The result was just as delicious, but it involved more work, and a bigger mess than when it cooked longer on the low setting.

I served it on a bun with a plop of slaw and a slice of Pepper-Jack cheese, with a side of sliced pears. Cheese on the sandwich? A side of sliced pears?!? I know what all you Southern pulled pork traditionalists are muttering, “Damn Yankee!”

cindy murphy
5/7/2010 7:14:11 PM

Hi, Mother of Little. Mmmmmm....peach cobbler! Your Grandma Butler sounds like she was a treasure. (Grandmas always make the best food!) Psst...I have to admit that I cheated on the slaw. No, I didn't use mayo, but instead used my favorite Vidalia onion dressing. Shhh...it's out of a bottle, but it's a vinaigrette, so no mayo, and Vidalia onions are from the South, so I figure I'm good, yes? Thanks for stopping in.


motheroflittle
5/7/2010 10:07:57 AM

Great story! I'm from S.C now living in N.C. My Grandma Butler was about the best cook in the south (think Paula Dean) She made a killer peach cobbler, pound cake, fried chicken and yeast rolls. God bless her, I truly miss her cookin!! Southern cookin ain't hard but it takes a relaxed hand.I'm still practicing. I married a yankee that can't boil water so he'll eat whatever I give him. We met in a small town in S.C called Irmo and they have the Okra Fesival every October. Its fun and they sell lots of fried okra. We now live in N.C. And yes, you will find the best pulled pork sandwitches in Lexington N.C. Make sure you use a vinegar based BBQ sauce and a NON-mayo slaw if you DIY. Before we moved here, a dear friend used to bring me (in a cooler) A bucket of pork ,a bucket of slaw and a bag of Sunbeam hamburger buns from Lexington. Man, that was the best eatin, next to Gramma Butlers cookin that is!!


s.m.r. saia
4/16/2010 6:10:36 AM

The pulled pork sounds delicious. Your stories about your encounters with Southern food cracked me up!!!


lori
4/7/2010 10:39:42 PM

Cindy, Great post! I have to say I'm right there with you when it comes to okra! I can't stand the stuff!! I do like sweet tea, although mine should be called semi-sweet! I like WAY less sugar than most people! As a matter of fact, when I drink a cup of hot tea, I don't sweeten it at all, just the tea please! I do like fried chicken though, so maybe that would decrease my sentence to "Darn Yankee"! :)


cindy murphy
4/5/2010 5:38:48 PM

Hi, Robyn. I got a bumper crop of greens last year too. I hope the same for this year. I just got them in this past week....and soon after, the dog ran through the garden bed. It'll be a tossed salad bed, I suppose; nothing wrong with that. I'm thinking about doing Swiss chard too - after the spinach and mustard which are usually done here by the end of June. I heard chard is slow to bolt and will grow in the heat of summer; I seem to remember having it all summer when I was a kid, but can't quite remember.


robyn dolan
4/5/2010 11:06:58 AM

I grew up in So. California, but grandma grew up cooking farmstyle, so she would make alot of what is considered "southern" food. Love all of the above, but never could acquire a taste for okra. Had my first taste of grits and cheese as an adult and immediately fell in love! Like my cornbread yellow-cakey too. I got a bumper crop of collards and turnip greens from my garden last year, and though I enjoyed them raw, after I sauteed them lightly in bacon grease - aahhh, heaven! And pulled pork...yet another gastronomic delight!


cindy murphy
4/3/2010 7:23:13 AM

Thanks, Michelle. And Happy Easter!


michelle house
4/2/2010 9:57:22 PM

Cindy, I always check in. lol. I enjoy your writings very much. :)


michelle house
4/2/2010 9:06:06 PM

Cindy, I always check in. lol. I enjoy your writings very much. :)


cindy murphy
4/2/2010 8:28:48 PM

I really wish this thing had an edit feature...my previous comment should read "the way my Dad used to cook them", "Lebanese", and "pecan"; there are probably more typos too, but those are glaring at me now. Maybe I should just read through my comments first before posting them. (eye-roll) Michelle - as always, glad you had some time to stop in. I love fried chicken too, though I've never made it. Actually, I'm pretty sure I've never fried anything in my life; even my 'fried pototoes' are cooked in a skillet with a bit of butter, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. I guess balsamic vinegar in my kitchen, is what bacon drippings are to a Southern cook; it goes in nearly every I make. I've always heard fried catfish is very good; it's one of those things I keep meaning to try sometime. Hi, Paul. It's great your wife makes you all those foods you love. And I know you like okra too - I remember the abundance of it you harvested from your garden last year. Sweet tea....hhhmmmm...I'm just not with you on that one! Bluck! Just waaaay too sweet. I read about your family's accident (I meant to get back in there and comment). Glad everyone is doing better now, and I'm looking forward to seeing more of your garden this year in your blog.


cindy murphy
4/2/2010 8:08:12 PM

Hi, Pam. "Kiss my grits!" - HA! It took a minute to remember who said it, but it came back to me - Flo from "Alice". Oh! and "dippity-doo" eggs! Otherwise, known as over-easy; that's the my dad used to always cook them, and are the BEST way to eat eggs as far as I'm concerned, using your toast to sop up the runny yolk. It makes Hubs cringe to think about it - and he refuses to cook them that way. Hey, Shirley - I've spent a bit of time in New Orleans too (not a lot; we've just been there a couple of times on vacation). I love both Cajun and Creole foods...and interestingly don't think gumbo is gumbo unless there's okra in it. Love Italian too; never had Lebanes that I can remember. Spinach, brussel sprouts, and asparagus are among my favorite veggies, so I don't think it's in my genes not to like them. It's probably a texture thing with me - I have an aversion to slimy foods, I guess. (eye-roll). And those Southern desserts...bring them on! Oh! Except peacan pie - like sweet tea, it's way too sweet for even my sweet tooth. Hi, Dave. The pulled-pork sandwich I had in N.C. had the slaw on the side, not on the sandwich, but I've always plopped slaw on my sandwiches. Reubens, especially - I don't care for sauerkraut (when Mom was cooking it, I swear I could smell it half a block away, walking home from school), but cole slaw on a Reuben....mmmmm! Turkey Reubens on marbled rye, with swiss, and slaw - I'm in sandwich heaven!


paul gardener
4/2/2010 3:00:16 PM

Mmm Mmm.. Sweet Tea! You may need to acquire the taste, but once you do you love it forever! I laughed reading this Cindy. I grew up in the South too - South California that is - and never had any of the truely traditional meals or even grits and cornbread til I too joined the ARMY (Hooah!!). My reaction was the opposite though. I wondered where these delicious things had been all my life. Fastforward to 11 years ago when I met my wife who happens to be from West "by God" Virginia and has a strong history of Southern cooking. Funny part is, she can't stand half of it and I love it all. She's a wonderful woman and does make me great meals of cornbread, greens and brown beans with ham hock and I love every bite! Geez, now you got me wanting pulled pork, Guess it's off to the butcher tonight? Great post! Paul~


michelle house
4/2/2010 1:54:09 PM

Cindy, LOL, my first experience with cornbread was the same as yours, in the Army, I like it, but agree tasted like gritty yellow cake. Never had sweet tea, hate okra, but I love fried chicken. :) Being in a military town here, I have been exposed to all types of cooking. A co-workers Mom would make us fried catfish and greens (cooked in bacon fat) yummy. Excellent article as always. :)


nebraska dave
4/2/2010 1:42:47 PM

Cindy, I’ve been to many parts of the country and even out side of the country. I’ve eaten parts of animals that would disgust most people. I must agree with you on the chitlins. I’ve never eaten them but I smelled them cooking once. After smelling that I have no idea how anyone would think that should be eaten. When I was in North Carolina at a bluegrass festival, I had a BBQ pork sandwich. The feller behind the table asked, “You want pickles and onions?” I said, “Yeah, pickles and onions are good.” He asks, “You want slaw with that.” I answered, “Yeah slaw would be good.” So he opens up the bun again and plops a big wad of slaw right on top of the pork. “Hmmm,” I thought "that’s a little different." Then he asks, “You want sauce with that?” pointing to three huge squeeze bottles marked mild medium and hot. I responded, “Yeah, I’ll have some of the medium.” Off comes the bun top again and he starts to squeeze the bottle and looks at me and says, “Tell me when.” That was my introduction to the Carolina Burger. I do like the Southern food. It’s not too good for ya but it sure tastes good. I know what you mean about the southern syrup tea. It’s an acquired taste.:) Of course they can’t understand how we Northerners can drink that nasty stuff with out sweetin’. My pulled pork starts with boneless ribs cooked in the crockpot until they fall apart. After pulling them all apart into mush it’s back in the crockpot with a bottle of BBQ sauce.


rodeo princess
4/2/2010 11:47:20 AM

I am a Southern Food Convert, too - my Australian mother, bless her heart- hates to cook and my father's family is German and don't really serve any traditional dishes. My Mum cooked the same seven meals with the same sides, rotated through the week when I was growing up. In my perfect world, lunch and breakfast would be southern US and dinner would be Italian or Lebanese. I love pulled pork, too, but I cook it in a small smoker with a spice rub on it but I am going to try your recipe because I don't have time to drag the smoker out before Easter. I've spent a lot of time in New Orleans and I love red beans, rice, jambalaya, mudbugs, etc. And, no, I don't like okra either, but then again, I don't like asparagus, egg plant, spinach and brussel sprouts but that is because I have a recessive gene that allows me to taste an enzyme masked to those without the gene. You might have it too! So don't feel bad about it. How about we move on to southern desserts.....YMMMMY!!!


pam_6
4/2/2010 10:28:47 AM

Cindy, Well..kiss my grits!lol..(just kidding) you probably aren't old enough to remember that from a t.v. show years ago. I can't believe you didn't like grits, sweet tea, and okra! But I can imagine any food you aren't use to is strange. I remember the first breakfast I ate with my in-laws and they served over easy eggs. I just couldn't bear to see my eggs runny all over my plate.I am sure I made that same forced smile face you were writing about. The pull pork is good. We call it bar-b-que sandwiches here. Your recipe makes me want to cook some up. Mmmm, some fried okra and sweet tea sure would go good with it. Have a great weekend. Gafarmwoman Pam Life on a Southern Farm


cindy murphy
4/2/2010 7:28:21 AM

'Morning, Mountain Woman. Your comment about the photo made me smile - I take the worst photos (can I blame it on my cheap camera?), and am often almost embarrassed to post them here. The pulled-pork sandwich actually looked and tasted much better than it appears in the picture! I love to eat too - all kinds of foods, and there were many on that first trip South that I really enjoyed though they weren't what I was used to eating. I have never though, cared for fried foods - and my mother-in-law fried nearly everything. Neither have I warmed up to sweet tea, okra, or grits, and don't expect I ever will. Just about anything else though...bring it on!


mountain woman
4/2/2010 6:01:04 AM

Thanks so much for the recipe and the most appetizing photo! I have to say I sure miss my Southern food. It is different but I have wonderful memories of fresh veggies from the garden. But I must admit I love to eat so anything tastes good to me. I'm off to get breakfast because now you've made me hungry :-)