Southern Food: Pulled Pork Above the Mason Dixon Line

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As 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!

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!”