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Pork Renderings

by Nick Thomas

Despite its Northern name, the Boston Butt is a favorite cut of meat in the South.  It’s the best part of the hog to roast and in some areas is also known as pulled pork.  Being so tender, it’s easy to tear apart, and break into smaller pieces for the sweetest sandwiches around.

But the origin of the term “Boston Butt” is not what you’re probably thinking, since the cut actually comes from the upper part of the shoulder on the front leg, rather than “down south.”  It seems that butchers of pre-revolutionary New England would pack their meat into casks or barrels known as “butts” for storage and shipment. Other parts of the country soon began referring to the shoulder region of hogs as “Boston Butt,” and the name has remained popular today throughout most of the US.

If you are fortunate enough to acquire a freshly barbequed Boston Butt, your family will likely congratulate you for  “bringing home the bacon.”  The origin of this familiar expression is a little obscure, but possibly comes from the 12th century English custom of giving a young couple bacon if they were still happy after a year of marriage.  Sadly, with the high incidence of marital breakdown today, it’s more likely that the divorce lawyers will be the one’s pocketing the pork.

Another popular pork product seen around holiday time is the baked ham, although this dinner centerpiece may not be the only ham at the family table. There always seems to be one family member this term can be applied to, but just how “ham” became associated with individuals who like to be the center of attention is a bit of a mystery.

One theory dates from Shakespearian days when actors would use ham fat to remove their heavy make-up. These performers became known as hamfatters, eventually shortened to hams.

And while no offence to any specific politician is indented, the hog has also found its way into government.  A familiar term for America ­ “Uncle Sam” ­ is said to have come from a New York pork packer named Uncle Sam Wilson.  He shipped a boatload of several hundred barrels of pork to U.S. troops during the war of 1812.  The pork barrels, nearly enough to feed the entire army, were stamped “U.S.” and the initials would forever link the country to its generous “Uncle Sam.”

While Yankees may be credited for the origin of the Boston Butt, folks in the South are responsible for a more dubious political hog.  The “pork barrel” ­ that familiar reference  to appropriations secured by Congressmen for local, pet projects ­ has fed irate political newspaper columnists for decades, and soured many people to the political system.

America’s political pork seems to have had its origin in the years before the civil war, from a somewhat common practice in the South.  On special occasions Southern plantation owners would place salt pork in big wooden barrels for the workers, who would rush to snatch what they could before the supply ran dry.  Along these lines, politicians have been grabbing state or federal dollars for pet projects with equal enthusiasm ever since, often themselves living high on the hog.

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