On my grocery store excursions to find subject matter for this column, I’ve always had a safety net in the event I’m unable to find something suitably peculiar or gross to taste-test. This month, Plan B was finally enacted, but not out of desperation. At long last, I felt compelled to take on pigs’ feet to support an industry facing a real crisis.
After a scary brush with an undisclosed illness last year, Aretha Franklin recently reemerged with an optimistic outlook and plans to get back to work. I was happy to read that the notoriously plus-plus-sized legend was dedicated to keeping her slim, post-surgery figure with a healthier diet and lifestyle. But when the AP story mentioned the Queen of Soul’s plans to give up her most beloved vices — ham hocks, “chitterlings” and, yes, pigs’ feet — I couldn’t help but think of the blindsided pork industry. That sort of immediate sales plummet is usually reserved for massive product recalls due to flesh-eating virus contamination.
Pigs’ feet have a huge international following. Besides being a staple of Southern cuisine in the U.S., they’re consumed from Hungary and Poland to Korea, Ireland and beyond. They’re often bought raw and prepared in various ways, but the pigs’ feet I’ve come to fear are the ones you might have seen in giant jars at the corner watering hole — pickled pigs’ feet. (I always assumed they were made exclusively for drunken bar pranks and dares).
You can also find them at most supermarkets, which is where I scored a small “Value Pack” jar made by Hormel ($4.69).
The visuals were the first line of offense. Without a label, it would be difficult to tell the jar of floating, fleshy globs apart from a ready-to-dissect animal preserved in formaldehyde on a science lab shelf. The next sense assaulted was smell — a gust of vinegar stench so potent it could be subbed for smelling salts shot out the moment the lid popped open.
Squeezing out bits to sample from the clear gelatinous goop, the meat made a vulgar squishing sound that will haunt my dreams. I almost gave up completely when a purple string connected to one of the chunks also oozed out. Was it a vein? Umbilical chord? Thread from the pig’s sock? I will do anything to never, ever find out.
Getting myself psyched up, I paced the kitchen, stopping periodically to hover over the pink blobs I’d laid out. I closed my eyes and finally snuck a small slice into my mouth, which forced me into a convulsive pogo dance as I chomped like I was eating live crickets. I expected it to be rubbery, but the texture was like a creamy version of the fat that people cut off of their honey-baked hams.
Not that I’m ready to petition for a new Ben and Jerry’s flavor, but the taste was the least traumatic part of the experience. The vinegar largely overwhelmed everything, leaving just a hint of pork flavor — sadly, more bologna than bacon.
People with the “acquired taste” required to enjoy pigs’ feet probably grew up in an environment where they were commonplace and acquired that taste when they were young. As we get older, youthful naiveté disappears in a cloud of preconceived notions. Right after my tasting melodrama, I jokingly asked my 6-year-old daughter if she’d like to try pigs’ feet. She instantly agreed and, without reluctance or fear, gobbled up a chunk, declared it “OK” and went right back to playing.
My stomach still churning, I stood in awe of the purity and innocence. Then I remembered kids also eat their own boogers and all it takes to lure them into a creepy van is the promise of candy. In that tradeoff, I think I’m cool with being on the side cursed with being skeptical of foot-based snack.
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