Without a doubt my grandmother more than loved to eat salt pork; she coveted it. Simply defined by Webster’s Online Dictionary, salt pork is “fat from the back and sides and belly of a hog carcass cured with salt.” (1)
As accurate as that definition may be, my younger self would define it as “the infamous chunk of fleshy colored mushy stuff found in a can of baked beans.”
As a young child my palate and my eyes were unquestionably challenged; overly sensitive to unwanted items found on my dinner plate. Negative reactions to unsavory foods were plentiful in my youth, and yet my parents still bought into the ‘try it you’ll like it’ theory, encouraging me to try the foods I ‘thought’ I didn’t like.
However, for all of their good intentions to cultivate my taste buds, their theory and the foods I didn’t like went south quickly; landing oh so discreetly in the paper napkin that lay across my lap.
Despite my parents’ fruitless attempts, they understood that fat, whether on a piece of meat or hanging out in a can of baked beans, was certainly not something they needed to force on me. They understood my aversion to all forms of fat, and especially my pure disgust for salt pork.
As a child, I accepted salt pork as a necessary flavor enhancer, allowing it to merely mingle in the sauce pan with the baked beans as they were heating. In my opinion, salt pork was not meant to be eaten, which made my dinner plate a “salt pork free zone.” I was always on high alert when baked beans were served; if the tiniest trace of salt pork ended up on my plate it was swiftly eradicated.
My grandmother, on the other hand, had an entirely different point of view concerning salt pork and she shared it without apology. Actually, I wouldn’t know anything about salt pork if it weren’t for her.
She was the first and only person I had ever witnessed to purposely eat a chunk of salt pork, and in my opinion it was truly disgusting! Even now the mere thought of a piece of that fleshy mushy stuff making its way on to my plate, never mind accidentally into my mouth, is enough to initiate the gag reflex. It reminds me of when I was about seven years old and I innocently determined that vegetable shortening must taste just like vanilla frosting; a painful lesson learned and never repeated.
And yet, there was my grandmother, a short, overweight, white-haired old lady who would sit at our dinner table, extra-large napkin tucked into her shirt collar, saving that coveted piece of salt pork to the blessed end of her meal.
I was not alone in my love/hate relationship with salt pork; my siblings also desperately hated it, and yet, deep down, we all loved that our grandmother savored it so much.
Upon filling her plate, we would watch with unequivocal focus, as she carefully separated the pork from the beans; delicately placing the infamous fleshy chunk on the side of her plate, saving it for later. Speaking for myself, I became obsessed with that chunk of salt pork lifelessly sitting there; I was disturbingly drawn to it and yet inexplicably repelled at the same time.
With each forkful she indulged in, my anticipation for the end grew. When the last mouthful of beans was swallowed, I knew the moment had arrived. We all sat in silence as she, with restrained exhilaration, pierced the salt pork with her fork, adoringly addressed it and placed it gently on her tongue; she knew we couldn’t take our eyes off her.
It was how she slowly pulled the fork out of its tender flesh and then proceeded to roll that salt pork around in her mouth that truly set us off. It was as if she were under the direction of an orchestra conductor; her eyelids would gently flutter and then decisively close, while a satiated grin spread swiftly across her face – she was in heaven!
It was at this point we would cry out in disgust, but not once did it interfere with the complete and utter enjoyment she felt as she slowly smashed that salt pork between her dentures. I remember wondering how anyone could conceivably find salt pork pleasing, and yet she did. To her it was the crowning jewel to a fine weeknight family dinner of burgers and beans.
My grandmother and her love affair with salt pork is now a distant memory, one I still recall with more fondness than disgust. If she were still alive today, I know she’d be so disappointed to find that baked beans from a can contain only trace amounts of salt pork.
She is surely missed but not far from my thoughts. For her sake, I’d like to think that heaven is filled with sauce pans full of baked beans and succulent salt pork and that she is grinning wildly from ear to ear with every blessed mushy mouthful.