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How Do I Love Thee, Piggy? Let Me Count the Ways!
Article first published in Vol. 9, 1991.
By Ruth Valle
These are some of the many ways we use pork here in the borderlands. Pork has long been a staple meat of the Mexican and Mexican-American culture since the Spaniards brought pigs to México. The pork rind or "chicharrón," meaning "to burn or sizzle," is the fat cut from under the skin of the hog, which is prepared by cutting into a small pieces and baking slowly in the oven until all the fat is rendered out and the chicharrones are delicately browned. Lightly salted, they often are served plain in a tortilla or in refried beans for burritos.
The same refried beans can be served with ahujas, or barbecued ribs. Brushed with vegetable oil, they are grilled over mesquite coals. They are served with salsa of tomato, onion, garlic, fresh serrano chile and dried red chile piquín.
Dried red chile and oregano top menudo, a stew comprised of beef tripe, posole or homily, chile powder, spices and pig's feet. The pig's feet must be cooked for at least four hours until the meat is falling off the bone. Folklore calls it a cure for la cruda (hangover) because the gelatin which is cooked out of the pig's feet is supposed to absorb the acids in the stomach, making the person feel less queasy.
Cabeza, or pig's head, is roasted until the meat is falling off the bone. Then the meat is shredded with the fat and mixed with a salsa made of different chiles and lots of garlic.
Other interesting items that come from the head -- the trompa y orejas de marrano, nothing more than pig snout and ears. These little morsels are baked or smoked until they are brown and curled up, leathery like jerky. They also can be pickled after parboiling. Not usually found in the local supermarket, these are more likely to be located by the register at a corner grocery store in the Lower Valley.
Another item seldom seen is morcilla, blood pudding. The blood of the pig is drained immediately after slaughter (sometimes even while the heart is still pumping) and added to green onion, garlic and oregano which has been fried in lard. The blood curdles and is sautéed until the mixture turns brown and thickens, producing a very rich pudding.
These are foods associated with the matanza (slaughtering) of pigs, and today, fewer Mexican Americans are familiar with the process because of urbanization. Little opportunity remains for butchering a pig in the back yard to obtain the fresh blood or parts called for in these delicacies.
Before urbanization, the Mexican learned from the Spaniards how to make chorizo, a spicy, smoked, air-dried pork sausage first made in Toluca, México. Today, chorizo is still made at home, but more frequently border residents buy it in supermarkets and restaurants.
A border version of meatballs, albóndigas, is made with ground pork and ground beef. One method of preparation includes pickled jalapeños for flavoring. Albóndigas are often used in soups or as appetizers.
Tamales, steamed cakes of dough made from corn, are usually prepared with a filling of pork meat mixed with red chile and garlic. A standard item for Christmas dinners, tamales are made by spreading the masa on a corn husk, adding the pork filling, wrapping the whole thing into a package and tying with a strip of husk. They are steamed until cooked throughout, and none are better than homemade. John West, author of Mexican-American Folklore, says, "Many people claim the best tamales come from the (pig's) head!"
Homemade manteca, or lard rendered from pig's fat, is comparatively more wholesome and better tasting than the white commercial lards that are fluffy with stabilizers and preservatives, says food expert Diana Kennedy. A homemade, pure, light manteca adds a very special flavor and consistency to masa, tacos, moles, tortillas and many other essential Mexican dishes. If purchasing commercial lard, look for good quality-- one with a good rich smell to it, possibly made locally.
Another local item is carnitas, or little pieces of meat. These are to be found in corner butcher shops throughout the city of El Paso as well as in the villages along the highway between Juárez and Guadalajara.
Whether served spitting and spewing off the grill with corn tortillas in Torreón, México, or served off a steam table with francesitos (small French rolls) and red chile, carnitas are a culinary treasure. Josh Arnold in Richard Bradford's novel Red Sky At Morning says it best: "The little cubes of pork had been baking all morning, and each time I bit into one my eyelids got heavy, as though someone were rubbing warm butter on them. It should be against the law to do anything to a pig but chop him up into cubes for carnitas. No ham, no spareribs, no pork chops, no bacon."