North Carolina is a piggy state. Our pork processing industry is the nation’s third-largest, generating almost a billion and a half dollars a year.
But where Tar Heels really shine, is in the preparation and consumption of it. I can explain in four little words.
Eastern NC Barbecue.
Short of Puerto Rico, nobody even comes close to the wondrous things we can do with a pig. It’s a mystical art that reaches back through the centuries. The Taíno people, an indigenous population who lived, among other places, Cuba, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico invented barbacoa, the slow cooking of wild boar upon wooden frames.
There are stories that pirates in the Caribbean took up this cooking method. Because of the state’s unique position jutting far out into the Atlantic and the cause of many a ship’s doom, there was quite a population of those same pirates that eventually, whether by choice or by shipwreck, came to call NC home.
Did they bring along the idea of barbacoa with them, which then was passed along to the rural population who had access to whole, freshly slaughtered hogs?
With this heritage, residents of the Old North State have eaten pork in many delicious forms. Barbecue, sausages of all types, and has anyone ever been to a Southern funeral where there were no ham biscuits?
I think there’s a state law mandating piles of them must be at the get-together after any good North Carolinian is laid to rest.
Pigs were domesticated first in Europe and Asia. In France, they invented a rich unctuous dish that’s naturally preserved. It’s a dish that is unfamiliar to many people in this state but has a lot in common with our own porky sensibilities.
It’s slowly cooked, using pork shoulder, a cut that needs time to coax out its flavor and texture. It’s rich, using the fat as well as the meat. The fat also preserves it by getting poured into a layer on top and hardening, which serves as a barrier to sick-making microbes.
It’s called pork rillettes (re-yets). And it’s the easiest fancy French food you’ll ever be lucky enough to put into your own pork hole.
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2 pounds pork shoulder, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 pound pork belly, skin removed, cut into 1-inch pieces
½ cup brandy
1 ½ cups chicken stock
12-15 gratings of fresh nutmeg
10 peppercorns, cracked
10 juniper berries, crushed
4-5 sprigs fresh thyme
5 bay leaves
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
Salt to taste
Heat oven to 250°.
Place everything except salt and vinegar into large heavy pot with a lid. Cover, and place inside oven.
Cook 2 ½ hours, then have a peek. You’re looking for the stock and brandy to be cooked out, and the meat to be completely soft and falling apart. If the stock hasn’t cooked out, uncover and cook for thirty more minutes.
When pork is sitting in fat only, remove from oven. Discard bay leaves and thyme twigs.
Pour into colander or sieve, catching and keeping the fat. Place pork and solids into stand mixer fitted with paddle and mix on low until meat is almost a paste. Add ¼ cup of the reserved fat and mix on low until fully combined.
Divide into 8 small jars or ramekins. Gently press smooth to remove any air pockets. Top each with a spoonful of reserved fat. Cover and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks if fat cap is undisturbed. Once the cap’s been broken, you have five days.
Spread on toasts or crackers, or place a dollop on chicken breasts, steak, fish, or roasted veg.