The most expensive piece of pork I ever ate was a strip of fatback some 20 years ago.
Miss Peggy had fried me up a mess of the stuff because she knew I had a hankering for the tastes from my childhood.
The best fatback was the kind that cooked up with a semi-crisp strip of cholesterol-laden fat clinging to a crackly sliver of skin. If the skin was crackly, you could bite it off easily, and it was crunchy and flavorful in the mouth. Sometimes the skin was chewy, meaning you had to masticate extensively – or, as Uncle Newt would say, chaw on it awhile. If it was hard, having been sliced from a tough old hog, you had to chew it with care, because it could break a tooth off. Most country kids knew that the way to handle a hard piece of fatback skin was to wallow it around in the mouth until it got soft and limber.
A plump, fluffy homemade biscuit always made good wrapping for fatback, but you had to be careful and not let the soft biscuit blind you to the pork skin’s tooth-busting quality.
Well, I wrapped Miss Peggy’s lovingly fried fatback in one of her pillow-soft biscuits, and bit down enthusiastically until enamel struck pork skin.
“Snap” went my upper front tooth. Broke off to the gumline.
My dentist performed a gentle root canal and fixed a crown over the stump.
Pretty soon, the crown started slipping off, but redneck ingenuity fixed that. I found that a little Super Glue squirted into the crown would keep it attached firmly for several meals. But eventually the glue would turn loose – usually at an embarrassing moment in some crowded and fancy restaurant such as Cracker Barrel.
I took my mouth back to the tooth doctor. He managed to attach the crown fairly securely, but at a weird angle. My front tooth stuck out the way cartoonists make front teeth stick out when they’re drawing idiots. I’ve never been able to figure out the connection between buck teeth and brainpower, but for a while I went around looking like Zero in Beetle Bailey. Friends told me that was appropriate because only idiots ate fatback in that enlightened age. Bacon, they pointed out, was cheap and plentiful, and its grease made red-eye gravy as readily as fatback grease did.
Eventually, my front teeth fell like white dominoes, and my dentist restored my smile with a set of partials. I prudently replaced the fatback in my diet with what we lintheads referred to as “breakfast bacon.”
Now my favorite breakfast consists of three biscuits – one wrapped around a couple of slices of bacon, one filled with jelly, and one soaked in half a cup of black coffee. A full cup of black coffee, hot to the edge of scalding, makes the meal complete.
Please do not write to tell me that my diet is killing me. It’s been killing me all my life, and I have reached the happy age at which I’m too old to die young. What’s killing me is the price of bacon.
I have watched it rise steadily over the years. Some meat packers try to disguise the inflated price by displaying the meat in 12-ounce packages instead of the regular 16-ounce pack.
I’ve found that some of the cheaper stuff is high in fat, low in lean. That doesn’t faze me. Remember: I like fatback; I’m just scared of the skin, and breakfast bacon comes without the skin.
I’ve also discovered that some of the cheaper stuff looks like it was torn and shredded instead of being sliced. That presents problems when you’re microwaving it on one of those plastic racks. They’re supposed to be more healthful, because when the grease cooks out, it drips into a tray, taking the delicious cholesterol with it. If the bacon is too badly mangled, it will drop into the tray and get thoroughly soaked in the artery-clogging grease.
I’ve learned to prevent this by spreading a paper towel over the rack, spreading the bacon on the paper towel, then covering it with another paper towel to keep from spraying the microwave with bacon grease. The extra sheet of paper towel absorbs some of the cholesterol-bearing grease and preserves more of the bacon flavor.
So I have been just barely able to afford to keep bacon in my diet, by going to the lowest common denominator.
Then I saw the headlines: Pork was going to start disappearing from the meat counters because the price of pig feed was so high that farmers couldn’t afford to keep their hogs fed.
I tried to imagine breakfast using turkey bacon or – worse yet – beef bacon. My imagination wouldn’t stretch that far.
Then I saw another set of headlines: Pork would continue on the market. The brood sows would continue to do their duty and the boars would continue to do theirs. The farmers would pay higher prices for their pig food and charge us more for the pork.
It reminded me of the oil crisis: Get the price of gasoline up high enough and there’ll be enough gas to fuel at least one 350-hp 9-passenger SUV for every family member.
I have a better idea: Repeal all those wussy local ordinances and allow each family to keep a breeding population of pigs in the back yard. Feed them slop from the family leftovers. Down will come the price of bacon. Back we’ll go to living high on the hog. Feed the fatback to Old Blue, whose teeth can crunch the pork skin and who won’t worry about the cholesterol.
Readers may reach Gene Owens through email at WadesDixieco@AOL.com.
Gene Owens is a retired newspaper editor and columnist who graduated from Graniteville High School and now lives in Anderson.
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