I never thought I would say this, but I have a crush on pork skins.
Until a few weeks ago, I laughed at the bumpy beige curls, hanging in their plastic bags at convenience store checkout counters next to disposable cigarette lighters in NASCAR team colors and vials of energy drinks for long-distance truckers. Although allegedly food, they looked about as edible as those nearby items.
That was before I visited the den of culinary sin known as a Southern Foodways Alliance symposium in Oxford, Miss.
Each fall, the SFA leads me down some new garden path in the name of its stated goal to document, study, and celebrate the diverse food cultures of the changing American South.
Thats academic-speak for the Ole Miss-based group. Yes, there is documenting and studying going on. Lots of it. See SFAs excellent oral histories and films at southernfoodways.org.
But, oh, the celebrating. This group entices me with bathtubs full of the devils juice (this year, involving champagne, Benedictine and grapefruit juice). It places sweetbreads which are neither sweet nor bread in my path and dares me to partake. It challenges me to sample three smoked meats and five different side dishes in one hour and still be able to rise and walk to the beer stand.
I knew that this years theme was barbecue. But its the specter of pork rinds that haunts me.
Whether called rinds or skins, the snacks are deep-fried bits of pork skin, fat and maybe a little meat. I did some research on my new obsession after I got home and found that they likely started out as byproducts of rendering pork fat for cooking. This was long before the need existed for crunchy snacks while driving. Theyre called gratons sometimes, although those more expert in the crunchy pork world than I might say those are a little different.
Some sort of munchable fried pig exterior exists in every cuisine that employs pork. In Mexico, theyre chicharrones. The Thai version of pork skins, khaep mu, is served with chili pastes.
Quebec residents call pork rinds oreilles de crisse ears of Christ and theyre staples on the menus of sugar shacks, places that produce maple syrup for a few months of the year. Im told that dipping the bits of pork and salt into the syrup is the thing to do, which proves that Southerners arent the only ones who know that sweet and salty is a heavenly combination.
Pork skins are Gods only true cracker, cookbook author and TV personality Alton Brown said as he spoke to the SFA about whole-hog cooking.
If pork skins are communion wafers, our congregation did join together a lot during the three days of the symposium.
Crunchy pork bits danced atop deviled eggs. Rinds stacked in paper cones enticed during a lunch prepared by Memphis restaurateurs Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman. At the final brunch, New Orleans chef Ryan Prewitt called them kettle-fried gratons, but skins they were, nevertheless.
My first rind whispered, not screamed, pork as it crackled in my mouth. The taste offered a hint of the skins origins, while being wreathed in salt, fat and, in one case, a dusting of barbecue rub.
The crunchiness chases chips and crackers right off the farm. The rind popped and crackled like piggy champagne, causing little explosions in my mouth. The only thing Ive eaten that was crunchier was also pork skin from a pig right off the cooker.
Obviously, my inaugural pork rind experience was with silk-purse versions of the snack. And perhaps I will be disillusioned when I try real-world pork rinds, served with the aroma of unleaded wafting from my hands.
But no matter what, pork rinds, well always have Oxford.