Down-Home Values: Soul food uses all the partsSoul cooking, like all food traditions, is an expression of its people. It is an economic style of cookery born from necessity. 'It's not having the best pick of the litter on meat,' said Janice O'Bannon of Sweetie Pie's in Dellwood. 'It's doing the best that you can with what you have ' in fact, making it scrumptious!'
SNIFFING FOR SNOOTS
St. Louis may lie north of the Mason-Dixon line, but you can still find some down-home, esoteric meat dishes in these parts. Take, for example, snoots, hog meat from the nose and cheek area. Don't turn up your sniffer just yet; you've likely eaten this offal (the innards and extremities of a butchered animal) because hog nose is filler for sausage, bologna and other cold cuts.
To prepare a snoot 'you cut off the nostril, score [the snoot], and bake it for two to three hours until it becomes hard,' said Anita Matthews, who, along with husband Kenneth, operates Ms. Piggies Smokehouse on Page Avenue. Matthews explained that the meat gets scored before baking so that its gets crispy without curling up. Craig Hunter, owner of Big Mama's Barbecue in Belleville and Swansea, Ill., said that the secret to a good snoot is 'getting high enough heat without burning it. You want it crispy, not hard.' Snoots are the restaurant's best-seller. 'We easily sell 25 to 30 cases a week and there are 25 to 30 snoots in a case.'
Once you hit the snoot circuit, you'll notice that snoots are served in a variety of ways: as a sandwich, smothered with a secret recipe barbecue sauce and slapped between two slabs of bread, or as a combo with rib tips or tripe. Snoots taste a lot like pork rinds, which prompts some people to eat them as an appetizer, broken into pieces and dipped into barbecue sauce. Your favorite snoot joint will likely depend on your sauce preference. The sauce at C&K Barbecue Restaurant in North County is sweet with a smoky tang; Big Mama's offers five choices: a sweet and mild house, sweet and spicy, spicy, smoky, and for those who can handle it, 'kickin'.'
Southerners sure have a way with hog organ meat. Pork liver can be transformed into lip-smacking liver pudding when mixed with pork loin end pieces, a bit of cornmeal, some seasoning and gelatin. Chitterlings (commonly referred to as 'chitlins') are a classic Deep South delicacy made from pig intestines. Like many meaty soul dishes, chitterlings are laborious and time-consuming to prepare; cleaning them requires multiple washings and scrapings.
'You can tell that it's clean if you can see through it,' said Kenneth Matthews. Afterward, you've got to withstand a noxious odor for hours as the innards boil with hog maws (pig stomach) in a pot of onion, celery, garlic, vinegar and salt. 'You have to put the stomach with the intestines to give it good flavor,' he added. Jo Houston, owner of Diner's Delight on Compton in St. Louis city commented that some folks like chitterlings with a few shakes of hot sauce; favorite sides are greens, macaroni and cheese, spaghetti, or coleslaw.
Most of us have heard of pickled pig's feet, but fewer of us can claim to have eaten them. Perhaps we'd be more inclined if we adopted the French term pieds de porc? Regardless of the anatomy-to-table translation, few restaurants around town offer this oddity. 'We used to sell pig's feet, ears and tails, but people stopped buying them,' said Jo Houston's son, Markeith Houston, who manages the cafeteria-style establishment.
Takeout eatery C&K does do ears. 'The ears get boiled with half an onion, cayenne pepper and salt. You boil it until the gristle gets soft. We serve it as a sandwich with mustard, pickles, onion and hot sauce,' said manager Aswad Brantley, son of C&K owners Daryle and Janette Brantley.
Hog pot is one of the most economic one-pot Southern dishes. Slowly simmer a couple of ears, feet and other various pork cuts with cabbage and other seasonal vegetables, and you've got a stew suitable for Sunday supper. Adventurous cooks who can get their hands on a pig's head could make scrapple, a cross between fried polenta and meat loaf that has roots in Pennsylvania but many fans in the South. Clean the head and boil it until the meat falls off. Dice the meat, throw it back into the pot, add seasoning and cornmeal, and stir until it's thick and mushy. Pour it into a loaf pan, then let it mold as it cools. Slice it thin, roll in cornmeal and fry in hot lard.
BEEFY TRICKS WITH LOWLY CUTS AND CRITTERS
Although the hog is a Southern staple, other animals proffer uncommon cuts that can taste mighty good when cooked up right. Rubbery tripe, for instance, has to be boiled for hours. 'Otherwise it tastes like a piece of inner tube in your mouth,' said Markeith Houston. Makes sense; tripe is cow stomach lining, after all. But once the tripe is battered and deep-fried to a nice crisp, placed between two slices of bread, and loaded with pickles, onions, hot sauce and mustard, tripe tastes delicious. In fact, you could mistake it for a breaded fish sandwich.
Even beef tongue is not to be wasted. This recipe for stewed tongue appeared in The Blue Grass Cook Book, first published in 1904: 'Parboil a fresh tongue and remove the skin; put in water and stew till done. Add 1 onion, allspice, cloves and pepper; stew about 3 hours. Before serving add a lump of butter sufficient to season it, together with catsups of all kinds. Nice for tea, and is also good when cold.' Tea and tongue on the veranda. Imagine!
The underutilized oxtail ' a tough, bony cut of meat ' reaches full potential when slowly braised. Oxtails traditionally did come from oxen, though nowadays the skinned tail of beef suffices for the oxtail at Diner's Delight, at Sweetie Pie's in The Grove and Dellwood, and at Del Monico's Diner in the Central West End.
A late-night foray near the creek can mean a finger-licking fried frog leg feast like the one Hodak's Restaurant & Bar in Benton Park plates with slaw, fries, veggies and a side of tartar sauce. Mock chicken-tasting turtles aren't safe from the cook's pot either. Ground or chopped turtle meat makes a sumptuous soup. Try it prepared by Frandeka Meat Market in Soulard Farmers' Market. Belleville-area nonprofit South Side Improvement Association has been ladling turtle soup for more than 50 years. Every other Saturday, members cook between 85 and 100 gallons, yet still manage to sell out. The event is also BYOC: Bring your own container. (Hey, we're in a recession!)
Home cooking gone south?
Soul cooking may have its origins in nourishing slaves in the Old South ('In those times, you didn't throw away nothin'!' exclaimed Anita Matthews, whose family hails from Selma, Ala.), but do home cooks regularly prepare these dishes today? Matthews said no. 'You might do it once a year, like at Christmas. Other than that, you just don't do it. It takes too much time.'
And you have to know what you're doing. Frandeka Meat Market sells just about any offal or other animal oddity that you could possibly want. Devotee buyers are 'mainly older people; those who grew up with it and know how to cook it,' said owner Jerry Frandeka. Perhaps that's why more restaurants are adding these items to their menus. In January, tripe and snoot became regular items at Ms. Piggies because so many people were requesting them as special orders. At Diner's Delight, chitterlings are a Sunday special, Tuesdays are oxtail day, and any day is a good day for tripe.
Nor is soul food just an African-American fancy, either. 'There is a lot of demand across racial lines ' Caucasians, Mexicans and people from the South,' Matthews said. 'We get a little bit of everyone, especially rural people, country folk ' a lot of them grew up on it,' Brantley said of C&K's clientele.
Big Mama's recently filled a snoots order large enough to feed an army. Literally. A group of soldiers were returning from a tour in Iraq and 'one of soldiers was from this area. His mom and dad came to the restaurant to buy snoots for the entire troop. Then they drove straight to Las Vegas so that [the soldiers] had snoots as their first meal [back home].'