Meet & Eat: James Villas

Author's Note: In preparation of a week of all things porcine we sat down with James Villas author of Pig: King of the Southern Table to chat about the book, the pig, and some of Villas' most memorable pork-eating experiences.


[Photograph courtesy of Wiley.]

What was the inspiration for writing an entire cookbook devoted to pork? To explain why Southerners understand pork like nobody else, its vital role in our history, and to provide recipes showing how, unlike others, we utilize literally every part of the pig to produce hundreds of succulent dishes for every formal and informal occasion imaginable.

Can you tell us about a particularly formative childhood experience involving pork? Periodic visits in North Carolina to a country farm market where Mother would stock up on whole hog sausage, cured back bacon, chitlins, livermush, side meat for cooking greens and vegetables, maybe a few pigs' feet or hocks, and fatback to make cracklin's. Also, routine festive church and political outdoor barbecues with pits of whole pigs roasting, as well as trips to the mountains to pick out and buy whole, hand-cured, well-aged country hams.

Why do you think pork is so much more prevalent in the South than other parts of the country? Centuries ago, Southerners learned that hogs were fully adaptable to our terrain and climate, easy and cheap to raise, and perfect for curing, smoking, pickling, seasoning, and cooking numerous ways. In the South, the pig is a symbol of not only survival over the centuries but gastronomic excellence that has evolved over a long period of time.

Tell us about some of your favorite pork producers and their products: A small butcher in Wadesboro, North Carolina who still slaughters his own pigs, makes whole-hog sausage, and cures real country bacon. A country ham producer in Glendale Springs, North Carolina who cures and ages his hams up to 9 months and, refusing to subject his exquisite hams to ludicrous federal regulations, cannot ship outside the state. The suppliers of meaty back ribs for Corky's in Memphis, Tennessee and of boudin and andouille sausages and tasso (spiced smoked ham) for restaurants all over Cajun Louisiana.

What are some of the most delicious but underutilized parts of the pig? Shoulder butt, ears, jowls, fat back, belly, hocks, and fresh hams (legs).

Pork has experienced quite a renaissance in the past few years, why do you think this is? A leaner product (for better or worse); many more artisanal bacon producers; the discovery of pig belly and Southern country hams by high-profile restaurant chefs. But the real reason (especially during the economic depression of the last few years) is probably the low cost of pork compared to other meats.

What are some of the most essential pork cooking skills for home cooks? Seasoning and grinding bulk sausage correctly, braising hams, making cracklin's and baking or frying pig ears, stuffing roasts and pork chops, and cooking authentic pork barbecue on an outdoor grill.

Tell us about the best pork dish or dishes that you've ever had the pleasure of eating: Besides Carolina pork barbecue, perhaps the most sumptuous pork I've ever eaten is braised Ossabaw pig, a very rare, exotic, feral 500-year-old descendant of Spanish Iberico hogs (first landed by Hernando de Soto in Florida in the 16th century) found today only on Ossabaw Island, Georgia. The flavor and succulence of this pork is indescribable.

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