An iconic dish of the American South

An iconic dish of the American South
  • By Simon Urwin

Pig Ear Sandwich

Today, we’re celebrating a side of the US that few people know by republishing one of our favourite stories about an iconic Southern dish that was invented by accident.

“The ears give you lots of juiciness and tasty pork flavours all at the same time,” said cook Lavette Mack as she stirred a simmering pot on the stovetop. “Add a little crunch with some slaw, give it a kick with some homemade hot sauce, put it all together in a bun and you’ve got yourself something really special.”

It’s mid-morning and there’s already a small queue forming at the counter of the Big Apple Inn, a much-loved soul food joint in the Farish Street neighbourhood of Jackson, Mississippi. “I’ll take six please,” said one customer in the colourful twang of the Deep South. “Give me two to have in, honey,” said another. Mack, who’s been working in the kitchen for more than 20 years, duly slices, spreads and stacks fresh batches of what’s become the most famous dish on the Big Apple’s menu: their pig ear sandwich.

For some folk, they may be a novelty, a curiosity,” said Geno Lee, the current owner and great-grandson of the restaurant’s original founder. “But pigs’ ears are an important part of African American cuisine. They’re what we call peasant food; a part of the animal that historically even the poorest could afford. And that’s something the Inn has always stood for since it opened. Making sure everyone gets fed.”

The Big Apple story begins almost 100 years ago when Lee’s great-grandfather, Juan “Big John” Mora first arrived in Mississippi from Mexico in the early 1930s. “He jumped off the train in Jackson and stayed. He was never legal here,” said Lee. “Like many immigrants he got to work straight away, seeing how he could turn a dime.”

“One day the butcher swung by and offered him some pigs’ ears for free. He snapped them up but had no idea what to do with them. That’s because when they’re fresh and raw, they’re big and tough. Come, I’ll show you.”

Lee led me to a back room and retrieved a slab of pink flesh the size of a bread-and-butter plate from a cold box. “At first Big John tried deep-frying them but couldn’t get them tender enough. Then he tried throwing them under the grill; same problem. Finally, he discovered that if he boiled them for two whole days, they’d eventually be good enough to eat.” He gestured to a pair of pressure cookers that rattled and hissed on top of a roaring gas flame nearby. “Thanks to these it now only takes us two hours to do the same thing.”

Lee then picked up a carving knife and cut an ear into three. “Each part is the perfect size to make a sandwich”, he said. “That was actually Big John’s invention. At that time, most people just ate the ears boiled but he decided to serve them in a bun. He also added the slaw, a splash of vinegar mustard diluted with water, and being of Mexican origin, it was also his idea to throw chillies in a pot and make a hot sauce.”

“Well, you know something? All the unwanted bits of the pig – the feet, the tail, the chitterlings (intestines) and the ears – back in the day, it was what the slave owners used to give to the enslaved for their weekly rations. It’s a wonderful thing that what was once about struggle and survival has been turned over time into a thing of comfort. Soul food. It’s simple, but it’s delicious.”

 

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