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Why we should give thanks for the whole hog

From pig-ear sandwiches to glistening ham slices

This public service announcement isn’t for my brethren who refrain from swine for religious reasons. I’m speaking to my hotep family that takes off sprinting when they smell smoky, glorious ham hocks simmering in the collard green pot. I’m speaking to the person who doesn’t have concrete reasons for consuming ultraprocessed, bottom-of-the-barrel meat — aka turkey bacon. What’s wrong with raised-right or “heritage” pork products dotting our sacred holiday dishes? Indeed, the hog — from slavery to the great migrations — has always sustained us.

During the early 1970s, African-Americans climbed economically and our plates shifted. Slowly, pig ear and mustard sandwiches and Harlem street vendors hawking pig feet disappeared. Our agrarian roots were being phased out by TV dinners, and a lingering association of hog scraps and offal to slavery. By the early 1990s, it seemed everyone from Ice Cube to X-Clan was telling us to never put pork on the fork. Lost in translation were conversations about industrially-raised meat versus provisions straight from a small farm.

This Thanksgiving, this reformed hotep sister ordered a country ham. I’m not ashamed.

Lost in translation was what exactly was available and at what prices to African-American communities at their local markets. And, importantly, by this time, many blacks, who had excelled in the world of butchery, fled like other races from slow craft. The fast-paced world seemed to require artificially bulked meat broken down and processed at high speed. So much of today’s conventional nose-to-tail swine is devoid of rich flavor because the animals are eating soybeans and corn. Humanely raised hogs — such as red wattle and duroc — are more similar to what our great and great-great-grandparents enjoyed. The “better for you” pigs are getting plenty of vitamin D and chowing down on lush glorious grass.

“The pig was always maligned for African-American health issues,” said Brooklyn, New York-based butcher Tracy Grenville. “I don’t think pork was ever the problem — but the way the pig was raised.”

This Thanksgiving, this reformed hotep sister ordered a ham. My Missouri-bred maple sugar-cured bone-in hog’s leg is from Heritage Foods USA, one the first outposts to sell unique pork varieties online.

It retails for about $100 — pricey (but around the same cost as a HoneyBaked). It’ll be chopped up for breakfast hash, and the bone will be used for bean soup. Its culinary uses extend far beyond the celebratory dinner table.

Over eight years ago, I made a promise to ignore my own self-righteous dogma around food in general. I’m not ashamed that I bought my ham — even though there was a time when my family’s favorite line about me and pork was, “She ain’t gonna eat that.” I was going through a faux-enlightened period in which I was convinced that pork killed most of my great aunts — and not the decades of emotional trauma and subpar health care. On Thursday, in addition to my ham, one of my largest serving bowls will be brimming with pork-seasoned, creamy Sea Island Red Peas — because I know moderation and quality are the keys. That and butchery.

Yet, if you’ve shopped in the new subway-tiled butcher outfits popping up over the United States of America, you’ll notice very few African-Americans behind the counters. In 2016, it takes more than a minute to locate and call out #melaninpoppin butchers. I texted well-connected food folks and some names jumped out, though: New Orleans sausage-maker Vance Vaucresson, and Fresno, California-based Pendulum Meats’ alum Kilan Brown. In my own mental Rolodex there is Brooklyn butcher Lena Diaz, as well as Berlin Reed, author of 2013’s The Ethical Butcher, How Thoughtful Eating Can Change The World.

Yet, pre-Emancipation black artisans ruled butchery. According to Anne L. Bower’s 2009 African American Foodways, “Savannah’s Jackson B. Sheftall, a mulatto, opened his own shop in 1849 and began to sell choice cuts of meat. An 1894 article in the Savannah Tribune noted its continuous operation, and the fact that Sheftall had grown rich.” He was not alone. We took the fat of pigs and bought the freedom for wives and filled footlockers for children bound for college. In 2011’s High on the Hog, culinary scholar and historian Dr. Jessica B. Harris writes about enslaved Africans, “The culinary monotony would change only at holiday time … there might be barbeques. The cooks for these events were black men.” The headliner was the sow.

I was convinced that pork killed most of my great aunts — and not the decades of emotional trauma and subpar health care.

That sow that’s so “bad” for us is home to the star (or secret) ingredient found in award-winning restaurant chefs’ chicken fryers and buttermilk biscuits — leaf lard. So many pork pieces considered throwaways are now high-priced provisional items and haute dishes.

So I challenge you to think a new thought and consider reclaiming a piece of black culinary history. Honor our ancestors’ labor-worn hands that used a little meat and lots of freshness to build flavor. Demand healthy meats in your local stores. Visit and make friends with people working craft stands, or behind meat counters at places like Whole Foods — or fall through a carnicería where Latino/a butchers are aplenty. Look into grocery activism. Become a butcher yourself. Please buy neck bones to season your string beans — and make your sweet potato pie crusts with lard. For one day, celebrate the old way.

I have a distinct memory of witnessing the ritual of a whole animal being cooked. At my cousin Tom Gartrell’s makeshift pit in the rear of his Athens, Georgia, red brick home, old-school men sipped on spirits and circled the roasting vessel. It was afternoon, and kids were running nearby, inching their way closer to the fire. Like most backyards in the working-class Deep South, crepe myrtle trees swayed and the sweet nectar of fruit trees filled the air. The feelings of protection and abundance are forever etched in my mind.