Sick of Bacon? Try Smoked Pork Jowl

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Smoked pork jowl from the Burgers' Smokehouse: I think this stuff has been one of the big sleeper/surprise hits of the first couple months of our post-book release bacon work this year. Pretty much everyone who's heavily into the cured pork has been raving about it, not to mention buying a lot of it and cooking it.

Although nearly none of you will have known it, the Burger family is actually one of the nation's biggest country ham producers. While that isn't really all that big by commercial meat manufacturing standards, it's a whole lot bigger than Nancy Newsom. While most of their hams are quicker cures for commercial outlets they do still do a small number of what they call Attic hams, old style, dry, ambient cure for a year country hams that are very good. And they do bacon, and they do this really good smoky pork jowl.

In terms of background, Steven Burger is the third generation in the family business and has dedicated himself to preserving tradition while simultaneously improving most everything the company cures. From what people say, that's pretty much the way it has gone ever since Steven's grandfather, E. M. Burger, started the business in the 1950s in the town of California, about half between St. Louis and Kansas City, and just slightly south of the college town (I always think about those college towns) of Columbia.

The flavor is very much akin to bacon, but it actually has this silky-smooth texture on the tongue, and there's an exceptional whole lot of flavor from each strip.

The Burgers' recipes and curing routines actually date back to the 1920s and the work his great-grandparents did on the family farm. The volume back then would have been similar to that of many entrepreneurial farmers, who were moving from curing just a ham or two for the family up to doing an extra half-dozen or so for sale to outsiders.

This smoked pig jowl is the same cut that Italians would call guanciale, although in this case it's not just cured as the Italians do, but also smoked. While I'm sure the word "jowl" is likely to put off more than a few readers, it's actually one of the most flavorful parts of the pig. As Bill Lamb, one of the mountain folk interviewed in The Foxfire Book, said, "Now you talkin' about part of a hog that I love is th' jowls. They ain't a better tastin' bite'a meat in a hog than th'jowl." Down Missouri way, it seems they pronounce it both "jowl" as in "owl" and "joel" as in Billy, so you can ask for it either way.

You can use the jowl in your cooking just as you would bacon. The flavor is very much akin to bacon, but it actually has this silky-smooth texture on the tongue, and there's an exceptional whole lot of flavor from each strip. Steven Burger recounts that a more traditionally Southern approach is to dice it up as seasoning for black-eyed peas. Fresh limas are starting to show up on the market here and I'm going to try it with some of them next week. Steven said he also uses it in a cornbread, black-eyed pea and smoked jowl stuffing. Or you could make a Missouri version of pasta all'amatriciana. William Marshall at the Deli swears by a "smoky carbonara," using it instead of pancetta or guanciale. I've put it on BLTs and fried, chopped and tossed onto salads too. Regardless of how you use it the Burgers' hog jowl is really quite delicious.

PS: for all of you who might have mentally been editing this unedited stuff I've written here, you might have caught that I wrote the name of the company as "Burgers' Smokehouse" with the apostrophe coming after the "s," which would make perfect sense if the family name had been "Burgers." The problem is that it's not--the name is "Burger," no "s," so the possessive should be all rights should be written out as "Burger's." Apparently, though, Steven's grandfather preferred the plural in order to share credit with the whole family and everyone involved and so chose to name the company "Burgers"...so there you go!

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Ari Weinzweig is co-founder of Zingerman's Community of Businesses, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is also the author of Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating. More

After graduating from University of Michigan with a degree in Russian history, Ari Weinzweig went to work washing dishes in a local restaurant and soon discovered that he loved the food business. Along with his partner Paul Saginaw, Ari started Zingerman's Delicatessen in 1982 with a $20,000 bank loan, a staff of two, a small selection of great-tasting specialty foods, and a relatively short sandwich menu. Today, Zingerman's is a community of businesses that employs over 500 people and includes a bakery, creamery, sit-down restaurant, training company, coffee roaster, and mail order service. Ari is the author of the best-selling Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating and the forthcoming Zingerman's Guide to Better Bacon.
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