WHERE THE WILD MEATS ROAM
A Story About Why Roast Pork Butt With Persimmon And Plum
Rod Stewart And Faces had an album, Every Picture Tells A Story, well, for me, so does a recipe. Born of a family going back to the 17oo’s on the same soil, in the same tracts of Georgia land, sharing the same names, church and graveyard, there are tales and legends as deep as any pecan root, and yet also as shallow as the creeks running all around the suburbanized and cemented maze that now stands on that once fertile ground. I will be buried in the same common earth as my first Irish American ancestor, Finn or Sinn, Cofer and Thomas, off of First Street in once tree lined and pasture rich Tucker, Georgia. Before I die I will have to eat a last meal, I hope, and that involves pork. Some want fried chicken, veal chops or carbonara, fat scallops or fried crappie, me, I want pork roast with persimmon and root vegetables.
The Finns, Englands and Cofers settled and fought, farmed and built railroads, general stores and family neighborhoods. The ground gave a lot of produce and tobacco, and then in the Depression it was all taken away, even my grandfather served time for throwing sacks of corn and wheat off the railroad cars as they mounted the hill that was Tucker. The Robin Hood thing was real. When a nation hungers, it hungers for real. The food that arose from these times became legendary, as they were then lost in the era of canned and frozen convenience foods. The Great Depression changed the way that people shopped and cooked. In my hometown we had two butchers, a couple of grocery stores, lots of vegetable stands, and of course Matthews Cafeteria.
Food dominated the cultural landscape. This is the South. This is the Deep South. Ethiopian and Irish, French and German, our foods developed from their kitchens and from their tilled ground. All cultures have “their” food that is often delicious in the place of origin. Learning how to approach indigenous or ethnic cuisines is challenging, and even moreso if it is the food of one’s own ancestors. Many times I’ve coaxed Chinese Chefs to trade the “good stuff” with me by eating Hunan style sweet and sour intestines. Cracks me up, Soul food is soul food all over the world. Wild and fresh killed meat is always good for no matter what part of the body, it is always good.
Plum trees were all over my neighborhood by a nameless creek and the small bream, perch and crappie filled lake below. Maypops, blackberry, pecan, peach, persimmons, muscadines and gone wild watermelons showed up here and there. Our own small yard had three purple plum trees. They were toys to me, things to throw around, to toss at rabbits and squirrels, and of course to play fetch with mix breed beagles that my father raised for rabbit hunting.
My Mother married without the slightest idea of how to cook. She was the bobby sockser, the pretty girl, The Southern Belle of the Cofer/England family. So, my grandmothers and aunts would fix dinner for her and then bring it over before my wild Thomas father came home from the hard labor brick mason jobs he held all over Dekalb and Fulton counties. We ate everything that my grandparents and their grandparents ate. And Mother, well, she became to me the best cook in the world; she learned and she handed it down. We loved her Sunday suppers of beef pot roast, and the yeast rolls that rose by the heater vents while we were at church were the best. But pork, the rest of the week, pork was a food of the people, affordable, high yield, fatty and adapts to just about any kind of preparation.
Buffets were the best part of births, deaths, new homes and marriages, of church socials and Tucker Days celebrations. It was an elaborate and tasty youth. These gatherings are now called “Taste of (insert city name)” where restaurants display their foods. I still envy the ways they handed down, yet much was lost in a land overpopulated and built up to the extent that town halls and mainstreets were to become the “Make believe” property of developers and sell out relatives. I miss the South of community and closeness, safety, and of course great fresh food.
I miss the foods the most. Great thing is that we are now bringing these foods back home in the home as more natural meats and local produce become available. Who would have ever thought that fried green tomatoes would be a restaurant dish? This was something we cooked at home when there were just too many tomatoes growing. Today this is tapas or amuses bouche in restaurants, and that’s cool. You gotta love the food. I keep trying to work out a fried green tomato bruschetta that can pass as a nod to Mediterranean or Pan Asian styles.
Today our South foods come close to what gave the food so much flavor, and I mean outside the family farm, the fresh killed meats, the iron skillets and 200 year old bbq pits, I mean the good love between us all, the setting aside of grief and anger, the lifting up of the love and the song that is a long family history, the worship in the only church around, the Tucker First Baptist (land donated by my maternal Grandfather), the only High School around, Tucker High (some of the land donated by my paternal Grandfather), the whole thing, the hanging out at my Grandfather Thomas’ general store, butcher shop, gas station and lunch counter, going to Matthews Cafeteria because that is where we went to eat out and socialize, not because it was charming and kitschy, but because that was where we went out to eat, period. Well, except for the Dairy Queen or Fountain’s Drugs. We ate together. We lived. The mention that we were quaint or kitschy can piss off landed gentry or two, and sometimes even me. That was the life before Atlanta was again the Phoenix in the late 70s and 80s.
The food has been revived and that’s the beautiful thing, our bloodline lives, our accents live and our food is being revived. Now if only the love and comradery could be resurrected. How can I touch this? By food cooked at home. My wife learned to cook collard greens with ham hock from my niece! Yeah, the family meals follow a twisted path but they always lead back to the family. Rough economies push us back to the family table, a place of conversations and true adoration of the food.
As an American Chef my foods have traveled the globe, my culinary path is the World, but my history, my training and much of my style belongs to what I saw in my Mamaw England’s and Mother’s kitchen, and of course from what Daddy Bill and Gertrud Thomas cooked one strange Sunday in the long ago. Long ago before appropriating the magic and hardships of dirt and clay, pine tree and pecan hard luck life became a marketable influence, long ago when it was real and it was now, when it tasted so warm and sweet. Warm and sweet, cold and sweet, that’s how I remember, that is the South I adore. Fusion began in the South. This stands as a kind of culinary confessional, doesn’t it? But it’s richer than this; the world of food unites us all beyond boundaries and beyond languages.
Why this long introduction to one dish built in so many ways for three hundred years? Why do all these New South restaurants get on my nerves? There is no ‘New’ South; we’ve always been here, welcoming everyone home. The ingredients have changed a lot now that the world is drawn in so close with modern farming, even for the small local there is modernity, this is how we survived, by change, by adaptation, and yet the main thing about the food never changed, the cooking style and the pork.
The variations are many, but persimmon, plums and sweet potato are what it takes for this roast pork butt to be the best Sunday dinner of the month, that’s for sure. And always remember that slow food is not our invention nor is it a novelty act for a hundred same menu farms to table restaurants to espouse. The only places not cooking fresh or natural are the big box chains that tell you they are cooking fresh and natural.
The pig itself is of importance. I use the breed known as Duroc. Berkshire and Ossabow are very popular among pork connoisseurs and rightly so for the rich, fatty flavor, but I like an in between kind of pig and Thomas Jefferson’s pig is a perfect fit for me. If you want Ossabow pork there is a ranch in Georgia that is now producing them so you don’t have to sign up for hunts in South Georgia and the islands there. The name of the ranch is Nature’s Harmony.
Fuyu persimmons work best for this recipe. If you have a persimmon tree then that’s just even more value to the meal. They can be found at Super H and many of the Farmer’s Market’s, organic grocers and Whole Foods.
Plums? What is there to say other than “alright, plums in a savory dish”.
Use the big dark firm slightly sweet ‘n sour Damson ones. If not fresh then just pass this over and use apricots or nectarines, and apples or pears.
PERSIMMON AND PLUM PORK BUTT ROAST
The flavor in a pig is always in the butt, leg, shoulder, bacon and country ribs. Since we cook with electricity and natural gas now instead of propane and whatever wood would fit in the stove some of the details are lost. I was finally able to cook my Mamaw’s fried chicken while cooking on a wood burning stove on the wild Mendocino Coast one home sick lonely long rainy winter. I am forever thankful for a Big Green Egg that my brother, Gary Lyle, gave to me last Christmas. I have learned again how to cook more natural, more to the heart of what I love about food.
Same for this butt recipe except that I was cooking wild boar. Northern California wild boars tend to be Berkshire, good stuff. Something about being away from home that brings home all the more close. So, I learned to cook the foods of my home by being away from home. I love this life, I really do.
6 pound butt
2 large yellow onions, or vidalia if available
3 carrots, chopped
5 cloves garlic, peeled
2 sprigs fresh thyme
3 bay leaves
½ cup fresh mint, or a handful of stems and leaves
2 sweet potatoes cut into medium sized cubes (1 x1 inch)
1 pound plums, Damson, cut in half, remove stone
1 pound ripe persimmons, washed, peeled and cut in quarters
1 ½ tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
1 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup apple cider
1/2 cup peach moonshine or light rum
1/2 cup sugar, light brown
½ cup molasses
2 tablespoons lard
Day before cooking chop the herbs. Rub the pork down with the salt, pepper and sugar. Mix the herbs with the molasses and rub this over the pork. Refrigerate overnight. The day of cooking preheat oven to 325 degrees. Heat a deep iron roasting pan or clay Dutch oven on the stove top on medium heat. Add the lard. Add the onions and carrots. Stir and let them cook for a minute. Add the pork butt and sear on all sides for a minute each turn. Add the sweet potatoes, plums, persimmons and heat for three minutes. Be careful not to let the herbs and sugars burn. Add the liquids. Simmer for three minutes.
Cover the pot and put it into the oven. Cook two hours. Remove the lid and cook for fifteen minutes. The pork should have a temperature of 150 to 160 degrees. Remove from oven. Take the butt out of the pot and set aside. Put the pot on the stove and bring to a boil. From here you will adjust the seasonings. Add more Damson plums if you need it to be richer and thicker. Simmer to a thin sauce. Strain and pour sauce into serving bowl.
Slice the pork. Serve persimmons, plums, sweet potatoes on the same tray and the sliced pork. Best eaten with yeast rolls, brunswick stew and any kind of cabbage or slow cooked collards or turnip greens.
ROSCOE HOLCOMB ON THE STEREO
So…Did I really think
the sun would shine down in my house out on hillbilly row?
When the rains flowed and fed great fields of kudzu and honeysuckle
I watched my gardens fade and fall, dry and die in the granite mothered
barren soil, and all the bream and bark in the world just wouldn’t
fertilize, wouldn’t hold the sands long enough to seed, but still I believe,
still I try. And when it’s good, on the front porch above the haze
it’s a vision of green mountains and steaming thin rivers cutting
through the gorge, beautiful. And when it’s corn and bean shucking time
I still have the heart to whistle “In the Pines”,
and I hope someone can hear me, I hope someone will shout back
through the woods, maybe even cross over to this plot of land.
Dried flowers, a dusty letter, Japanese figurine, yellow light on the brick
mantel shines, wipe my eyes, look again, and still it shines a cracked
and dingy pastel, and the morning itself seems like a postcard,
a loved memento of the life I’ve had. But waking always brings this pause,
this gaze into the past…wish it was easier to shake away the dreams,
just set them on the shelf beside the light, turn around and go my way.
Sitting in the kitchen staring at the rusty well water in my James Joyce mug,
have a smoke, try to forget those other warmer mornings and fonder beds,
sip and think about how with today I begin again, yes again, yes.
Daybreak walking down the hill, chestnut and red clover line the path,
wild strawberries and may pop vines perk up beneath the early dew,
think about it: this is my life? Here, earthsongs grew and flourished,
and I knew all the talk about whispers on the wind and the life of the wee
folk was more than legend, it simply was. It simply was the way of things.
River rock and Cherokee rose lead the way creekside to the barbwire line
that marked the place grandfather had his still, and there today I see
the blue tagged stake for the county tax man, fresh, deep, weak nonetheless,
and there today I just kick it down and keep on walking, glad this is a place
where I feel and feel, and feel so much the today of it all, just the today.
Strange water, this mountain blood: Black bear heart and Appalachian spirit,
Van Gogh hands given to the land, knowing the light is sweet and giving,
yet the Adam in me still curses anyway, and I pace in and out of the creek
and moss like this here is the one true baptistery, and I do dare it all
to come to pass……….yeah, these Ecclesiastic days will surely pass,
but until then there’s another song waiting, another blues, another hymn
to hard work and struggle, another reason to stomp and wail,
and then another day to fight the silence on the hill.