Award-winning chef and PBS show host Vivian Howard’s new cookbook is a deep dive into Southern food. Rather than publishing a few well-known recipes from this region and that, Howard focuses on the ingredients and techniques that have sustained her native North Carolina for generations. Get your hands on this hefty tome and prepare to see the Tar Heel State as never before. If you’ve never cooked with “seasoning meat,” break out the fatty smoked pork and prepare to infuse your goods with some piggy goodness.
Too many people think meat, often fried meat, sits at the center of the Southern plate. Maybe it does today, but historically we ate large pieces of meat once or twice a week. The rest of the time, cooks used “seasoning meat” as a condiment — a means to round out a vegetable- and grain-focused meal. Seasoning meat is usually pork, but never a fancy cut. Instead, it is every nook, cranny, nugget, and bone either salted, smoked or ground into sausage to lend flavor to pots of anything you can boil.
We don’t cook our beans and greens this way simply because we like it. The custom comes out of the need to preserve meat. Families came together after the first cold snap, slaughtered a few hogs, and turned those hogs into food for the frigid months to come. This tradition is responsible for beloved pork products like country ham, smoked side meat, jowl bacon, ham hocks, and sausage. Pig tails, feet, cubes of fat, neck bones, and noses got salted down, packed into crocks, and hung from rafters till a cook imitated Jesus with His loaves and fishes and called on a hunk of cartilage and bone to turn a bunch of nothing into supper. Often simmered in water and nothing else, seasoning meat produces a porky broth bubbling with white fat, smoke, and funk that transcends the days of hog killings to become an essential cooking medium.
Southern cooks have strong opinions. Since this is my book, I’m calling mine “wisdom.” Here it is.
Air-dried sausage: The seasoning meat of choice in Eastern North Carolina. Its funk, tang, and umami accentuate the bitter notes of turnips in an incomparable way.
Smoked pig tails and feet: These offer body as well as fat and flavor. Look for feet and tails that have been split in half. They’ll give up their sticky-fingered, lip-smacking, body-building qualities faster and gnawing on the carnage will be less offensive. I like these for soups and greens, not for beans and peas.
Smoked ham hocks: A cross-section of what you could call the pig’s calf, ham hocks are the quintessential collard-green seasoning machine. Hocks offer flavor, body, and good-size chunks of meat to their companions. It takes a lot of cooking to coax meat from hocks, but the result is luscious pink pearls bobbing in your pot.
Country ham: To me, country ham’s place is in a biscuit or next to grits, not in a pot of greens. In a pinch, I’ll use it as seasoning meat, along with its skin and bone. Country ham is short on fat and broth-body-building qualities, so look for chunks with the large pieces of fat and skin that we call “chips.”
Smoked neck bones: These have a devoted following. Cross-sections of the neck studded with fatty nuggets of meat get simmered and gnawed on like a chicken leg. They do double duty as seasoning and centerpiece.
Belly bacon, side meat, streak of lean, and jowl bacon: Bacon is generally cured, smoked pork belly, but a fattier bacon with a stronger flavor is made from a pig’s jowl. That’s jowl bacon.
Pork belly that’s cured but not smoked is side meat or streak of lean. The term refers to the strip of meat between the two pillows of fat on every pork belly. I like when it’s rubbed with black pepper on top of the salt cure and sold in slabs. It’s my go-to for soups and beans because I find too much smoke distracting.
There are two ways to use bacon and side meat for seasoning. You can render it in your pan and set the crispy meat aside before you add water to make the broth, or put the meat straight in with the water like a ham hock. Usually I render some and leave a few whole chunks or slices for the water.
Fatback: Just what it sounds like, this is fat taken from the back of a pig. It is hard, flavorful, and great for rendering into lard. To make it seasoning meat, the skin is left on and the fat is cured in salt. Like pork belly, it can be rendered crisp or dropped straight into the pot.