Pork production has played a major role in America’s food since the birth of the nation. Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto brought pigs to Florida in 1525; pork rapidly became the most popular meat enjoyed on the continent. During the 19th century, salt pork, which could keep for long periods because of its high salt levels, became a prime source of meat protein for people living in wilderness areas. Immigrant groups brought a taste for pork, and a skill at hog rearing and pork preparation, to the United States from their home countries. In America today you can enjoy a German pork sausage, a Chinese pork rib, Caribbean jerk pork, and of course down-home American pork in numberless variations.
Figures for 2001 indicate that 97 million American hogs generated nearly 19 billion pounds of pork production. Iowa, North Carolina, and Minnesota are the biggest pork producing states in the United States. Though pork is the most widely consumed meat in the world, it is now second to beef on the American table. During the 1970s, American pork consumption declined because of concerns over the fat content of the meat.
Most pork is produced from young animals (about 6 months old) that weigh between 175 and 240 pounds. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) sets the standards for pork inspection done either by its own inspectors or individual agencies of the various American states. The seal reading “Passed and Inspected by USDA” guarantees that the pork is free from disease and spoilage. Unlike beef, which has a complicated series of eight grades, pork only has two: “Acceptable” (the only kind sold fresh in food stores) and “Utility” (used for meat processing). Unlike beef, pork is never intentionally aged.
The pork industry has maintained a public relations and advertising campaign for many years under the slogan “Pork, The Other White Meat,” launched in 1987. The term “white meat” generally refers in the United States to chicken, thought to be healthier than either beef or pork because of its lower fat content. Since pork producers have been breeding lower-fat hogs over the years, the idea is that certain cuts of pork qualify as healthier meats than did the pork of the past. While this claim may well be nutritionally correct, food fanciers and chefs often complain that the new pork is less flavorful than yesterday’s full fat varieties. They also bemoan the demise of the craft butcher and the mechanization of American meat production. The industry has recently begun another campaign using the new slogan “Don’t be blah,” designed to encourage home cooks to try innovative flavor combinations using pork recipes in their cooking.
The pork chop is probably the most popular variety of fresh pork served on the American table. Cut from the loin, varieties include loin, rib, sirloin, top loin or blade chops. In a common variant, the pork chop, between half an inch and two inches thick, is pan fried and served with applesauce. A pork roast is a more elegant choice, especially in the form of a rib roast or crown roast.
American pork is almost entirely free of past problems associated with the parasitic disease trichinosis. Though to be really safe pork should be cooked to an internal temperature of 150 degrees Fahrenheit to kill the parasite, old habits die hard, resulting frequently in overcooked pork, which is dry and tasteless. Many knowledgeable chefs insist that an internal temperature of 140 degrees is optimal in terms of both flavor and safety, but others maintain that pork at lower than 150 degrees has too springy a texture, safety considerations aside.
Pork sausages are eaten in several forms, each with a different look and different spicing. The bratwurst, a popular German sausage usually seasoned with ginger, coriander and nutmeg, is well known and available pre-packed in most supermarkets, ready for grilling. Breakfast link sausages are a morning option. The American hot dog may or may not contain pork. Liverwurst, made partially from pork liver, is an important delicatessen food; salami in its many forms is another.
The world of barbecue exalts two pork products above all. Pork ribs are prepared according to different recipes in various parts of the United States; the southern purist will insist on slow cooking using smoke and indirect heat. Pulled pork, associated with the entire southeast, calls for slow cooking a pork shoulder, often in a spice rub, for 12 hours or more, until the meat is so tender it can be pulled off the bone with a fork. Texas barbecue, by the way, stresses beef over pork.
Pork features strongly in many American ethnic and regional cuisines from the southwestern carnitas (tiny bits of cooked pork often served wrapped in tortillas) to the Pennsylvania Dutch scrapple (a pork loaf created from pork scraps mixed with cornmeal and seasonings).
Pork, much more than beef, lends itself to two processed products that have long been part of the American diet: bacon and ham. Bacon is taken from the side or belly of the hog, cured or smoked, and sold in slabs or strips. Gourmet brands of bacon are often thick-sliced, smoked with special hardwoods, or cured in maple syrup. Health brands of bacon are available preservative-free. Handy pre-cooked bacon strips are sold at a premium; the user heats the strips by placing them in a microwave oven for ten seconds or so. Bacon strips are enjoyed as an accompaniment to breakfast eggs, in the popular bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich (BLT), and as a topping for the bacon-cheeseburger. Crumbled bacon bits, either made from scratch or purchased pre-crumbled, are used to garnish salads and baked potatoes. Imitation bacon bits are manufactured from soy and other vegetable proteins.
Ham is technically a cut from the hind leg of the hog. Most hams, other than fresh hams, are cured or smoked. A country ham is dry cured by rubbing in sugar and salt, yielding concentrated flavors in the dry meat. The Smithfield country ham from Virginia, aged up to a year and produced under special conditions, is world famous for its dark meat and unique flavor. Most hams are wet-cured in a solution of brine, sugar and spices, resulting in tender meat, pink flesh, and easy slicing. Ham is often sliced as sandwich meat or served in steak form as a main course. For holidays and gatherings, an American family may roast a whole ham, usually covering it in a sugary glaze, studding the meat with cloves for extra flavor, and sometimes serving it with pineapple slices.
A study of pork in the United States would not be complete without a survey of significant pork references. The city of Cincinnati, Ohio was so important as an early pork marketing and shipping center that in 1835 it earned the nickname “Porkopolis.” The city recently celebrated this heritage by featuring large pig sculptures throughout its downtown area. Piggy banks have long been used by Americans to save spare change. Wilbur the Pig is a beloved character from the children’s book Charlotte’s Web. Cartoon icon Porky Pig has been around for generations. Babe the Pig has starred in several animated features.
Best known of all, perhaps, is the obstreperous Muppet, the divine Miss Piggy, who, perhaps inadvertently, tells a tale. When puppeteer Shari Lewis introduced her adorable puppet Lamb Chop in 1960, sales of lamb meat declined. When Miss Piggy skyrocketed to stardom, pork sales actually increased. Americans appreciate lamb on their tables, of course, but they truly adore pork.