Pork has influence far beyond the table. Words invoking pork have made their way into everyday life, from football’s autumn pigskin classic at your favourite stadium to pork-barreling politicians looking for re-election. Of course, electors will be choosing a pig in a poke, and then must make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. Even music is infiltrated by pork, as with the Pork Belly Futures, a well-educated Toronto-based blues band.
For a long time, pork was a poor family’s meat. Even now, it is the most widely consumed meat on the planet. Statistics Canada’s records show that Canadian farmers produced 14 million pigs for consumption in 2019 on over 8,000 farms. (In 1991, over 29,000 farms were raising porkers for supper.) That’s still a lot of sausage and ham, with 41 percent of those animals raised in western Canada.
Around the globe, pork is king, eaten in a wider variety and range of styles and shapes than any other meat. German cooks simmer smoked pork hocks with sauerkraut, and French cooks add a variety of pork products – sausages, hocks, smoked chops – to cassoulet. In Spain, the haunch of the black Iberian pig is converted into incomparable jamone, cured with salt, air and time into a supple and delicious staple that is as popular in Spain as its Italian equivalent, prosciutto, is in Parma. Chinese cooks velvetize pork with cornstarch, soy and sometimes a splash of sherry, then add it to stir-fries. Hot dogs are the ballpark staple, bacon and eggs is a diner classic, and barbecue specialists slow-smoke ribs or pork butt, converting it after hours of slow cooking into messily magnificent pulled pork sandwiches garnished with coleslaw and soft buns. Canadian cooks love peameal-coated back bacon or ham in split pea soup, and nearly everyone everywhere loves waking to the smell of frying bacon.
As the meat of many cultures and classes, pork is a good example of frugal “tail to nose” eating. Nothing is wasted on a pig. Parts of pigs are cured, salted, smoked, stewed, chopped, stuffed, brined, rolled, roasted, pickled, grilled, barbecued, braised, broiled and fried. Even its trotters, or feet, are consumed, as are its ears. Insulin for diabetics has been derived from pig products, pigskin becomes gloves and footballs, and good-natured cooks take a little ribbing if they ham it up or mutter, sotto voce, about “when pigs fly” and capitalist pigs who bring home more than their share of the bacon
A pig in a poke refers to a con dating back to the Middle Ages in Europe when meat was scarce. Unscrupulous itinerants would misrepresent a live cat or rat in a poke (a bag) as a suckling pig, and the buyer would pay accordingly, only to learn of the mistake after the bag changed hands. Fortunately for us cooks, modern pork is no pig in a poke. If you, like me, are lucky enough to have a smokehouse in your neighbourhood, you know the pleasure of smoked pork – ham, sausages, pork hocks, chops. It’s my favourite meat. So first let’s eat, then we can debate the merits of our favourite smokehouses.
Ham with Black Mission Fig Glaze
If you’re lucky enough to have a local smokehouse, get your ham there.
5 lb. ham
½ onion, thinly sliced
2 cups chicken stock
8 black mission figs
4 cloves garlic, sliced
3 strips of orange zest, about ½” x 2” each
2 Tbsp. tahini
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1/3 cup maple syrup
1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
salt and pepper to taste
Set oven at 350 F. Score the ham’s rind in diamonds at 2” intervals. Place the ham, scored side up, on top of the onion slices in a shallow roasting pan with sides. Pour the stock around the ham with the figs, garlic and orange zest. Bake uncovered for 2 hours.
Remove the ham from the pan and turn up the oven to 400 F. Pour the stock into a sauté pan, straining out the onion slices, figs, garlic and orange zest, and put them in a bowl or food processor. Add the tahini, oil, syrup and mustard to the solids. Puree, then set aside 1/3 cup of the puree.
Return the ham to the roasting pan and slather the rest of the puree over the scored ham rind and into the crevices. Return the ham to the oven for 10-15 minutes, glaze side up.
Meanwhile, add the reserved puree to the stock and mix well. Bring to a boil and reduce the liquid by half, to the thickness of gravy. Season to taste. Carve and serve the ham with the sauce on the side.