Ten miles south of Disputanta, Virginia, on Route 460 there’s a nut-shaped sign advertising “Molasses, Hams, Peanuts” in front of the unassuming Adams Peanuts and Country Store.
When I head down to North Carolina’s Outer Banks I always take a roundabout route to pass by Adams. Why? Right at the front door there are crates brimming with salted and smoked cuts of pork. While my son lingers over the display case full of pocket knives and grabs us a couple of cold Dr. Peppers, I gather hog jowls. Country cured and smoked until they are as dark as mahogany, these luscious, fatty triangles are tremendously good.
When I lived outside of the South, a visit to Adams was anxiety inducing. I would suddenly find myself worrying about when I might have time to make another trip to the store. Would it be a full year? Would I be able to dash off to peanut country over the Christmas holidays and sneak in the purchase of a few pounds of bacon? Food anxiety leads to over purchasing the way that hunger leads to overeating, and I’d find myself stacking five or six jowls on the old counter next to my little bag of peanut squares. A few times, I couldn’t resist the urge to hoard even though my pantry at home was still stocked with my previous purchases.
Ironically, my anxiety of having a scarcity led to an abundance of hog jowls, which then led to me using them in new and inventive ways. They still seasoned my beans and greens, they still showed up in soups and stews, but one day, holding a can of San Marzano tomatoes, I wondered: Why not hog jowl all’Amatriciana? One of the simplest red sauces, all’Amatriciana is usually made with the salted, cured jowls called Guanciale—they are similar, but they aren’t smoked. The original dish has a subtlety that these smoked jowls certainly stomp all over, but there’s something to be said for the big, brash flavor and the recipe has been in solid rotation in my house ever since.
Soon enough, these jowls freed me from a range of supposed kitchen norms and I began to rethink a lot of my recipes. It was a logical jump to create a stock for ramen from hunks of country ham. At first, I thought the crossover appeal was limited to pork but then I saw a lot of traditional Southern ingredients in my local Virginia farmer’s market in a vastly differently light.
To make sure, I wasn’t going crazy, I called celebrity chef Vivian Howard, of North Carolina’s famed Chef & The Farmer.
“If you live where you live, or where I live, you probably don’t have access to the ingredients that would make a good dashi broth without involving Amazon,” she reminded me. “You’re trying to cook something out of your pantry, and this is what you have.”
Her cookbook, Deep Run Roots, is big and beautiful. It’s basically been open on my kitchen counter ever since I got it. It is a meditation on the rural Southern community where she is from, but it doesn’t get bogged down in artificial notions of authenticity. The traditions she celebrates are certainly regional, but they are from her family and friends, and purposely shy away from the strictures of the old church and junior league cookbooks, and instead highlight the idiosyncrasies of individual habits and tastes. (Maybe her time cooking in New York restaurants helped her develop this interesting perspective.) The book makes me think and it makes me hungry.
In her opinion adding foods from different traditions makes it familiar, and can “tell the story of the place.” And Howard stretches the roles of traditionally southern ingredients with a confident freedom that yields excellent results. She’s even made dolmades out of collard greens.
“Right now we have a lot of cabbage in the kitchen, and we’re using it to top the Japanese pancakes okonomiyaki,” she mentions off handedly. Adding “everything on it is from North Carolina.”
We then started talking about her turnip greens with parmesan pot liquor and ricotta cornmeal dumplings. She told me that the dumplings were like a gnudi, the cornmeal roots the dish and adds texture. How does it taste? Her recipe tester says the dish “looks like matzo ball soup had a Christmas party.”
My advice? Add some pork jowl to the dish.
Hog Jowl all’Amatriciana
4 oz Smoked pork jowl or high-quality bacon1 Onion, chopped1 pinch Red pepper flakes28-ounce can San Marzano tomatoes1 pound Bucatini1 pinch Black pepper.5 cup Pecorino cheese
Slice the jowl into strips, and drop those lardons into a heavy saucepan over moderate heat. After the strips are crisp and the fat is rendered, remove the jowls and set them aside. Add a chopped onion and some flakes of red pepper. While the onions sweat, drain and chop a 28-ounce can of tomatoes and then slide them into the pan. Add the bucatini (or whatever pasta you like) to the mixture and stir. Then add the jowls back into the pan and crack some black pepper over it, and stir in the pecorino cheese. The whole dish takes 30 minutes. A friend of mine once exclaimed, in much more vibrant language than I’ll write here, that it was as if barbecue and spaghetti got together and made a baby. Watch out for the salt level and be sure to taste the sauce before you add any more salt.