Low on the Hog

Low on the Hog

One Man’s Quest for the Perfect Pickled Pigs’ Feet

By Ken McFarland

I was maybe five, but the memory is powerful of the bone-crushing noises my Pop made as he stood by the family Studebaker and gnawed on a pig’s foot, so much juice dripping down that he had to lean way over to protect his shirt. I knew the source of the cracking was the bones and not his teeth, but I still had child-type worries about it. (He had real teeth then.) Meat all eaten, he’d light up a Lucky Strike to savor the moment. Country stores then dotted the rural landscape, and I believe this pigs’ feet seller was somewhere near South Boston, Virginia. Offerings might have varied, but I don’t think any rural emporium back then lacked pickled pigs’ feet floating in a big glass container near the cash register. Pickled eggs, Penrose sausages, and large dill pickles shared the space, but trotters ruled the roost. 

People the world over consider pigs’ feet a delicacy—or at least edible if cooked long enough. They’re also called trotters, though pettitoes is an alternate term. Really, though, the names can be used interchangeably, as they are in this article. In the South, and in dive bars across America, pickling is the preferred method of preparation and consumption. Like some frankfurters, jars of trotters continue to get eye appeal from the red dye in the pickling liquid.

Pigs’ feet faded from my thoughts for many years after my childhood, save for one brief fresh-from-the-jar experience at a Newport News bar. In a long-distance pay phone call, my girlfriend informed me she “just wanted to be friends.” I told her she could keep my class ring in any case, and I then went to the bar for another Schlitz—and a pig’s foot. I don’t know why I thought that particular hog bit would massage my bruised feelings. I just remember that it didn’t. That now-ex-girlfriend was never again to ride in my new 1966 Mustang, which I then drove back to the Navy base.

Decades passed, old girlfriends were long forgotten, and I swapped a Southern existence for life shaded by Vermont’s Green Mountains. While not dropping my Fredericksburg klatch of old pals (we now Zoom), I found a new gang of mostly-retired companions with whom I now meet most every day but Monday for an hour and a half. Politics and Medicare Advantage plans have been common topics, but food is a main contender, too. “What you having for dinner tonight” is frequently heard, though most of them say “supper.” The taste buds are as diverse as the origins of this bunch, only two being native Vermonters. 

A few months ago, as the banter was waxing and waning, our pal Wayne from the Garden State started bewailing the absence of pickled pigs’ feet from his table. Pigs’ feet? New Jersey? It turned out his mother used to give him a gallon of pickled pigs’ feet every Christmas, a tale he told with more than a little wistfulness. (Whether pigs’ feet come by liquid measure or weight is a subject for another story.) Sad story now being, however, nobody offered these porcine parts in this vicinity, and holiday memories were just that.

I had once or twice made pickled onions for Wayne , and I also brought him some fresh-from-the-farm bratwurst. Now I had a new sense of mission. I was still feeling bad for popping the news that his beautiful young American chestnut tree would almost surely die from chestnut blight. (He missed that info in the nursery fine print.) Surely there were pickled pigs’ feet somewhere in central Vermont, and if not, I could cook him up some fresh trotters myself from an area farm. A promise to self, however, was that I would go down in flames before ordering anything through Amazon…a matter of some sort of principle.

A quick call to Greg’s Meat Market up the road in Middlebury came first, and sure enough they said they had trotters, both pickled and fresh, coming in “tomorrow or the next day.” Bingo! How had Wayne missed that? I allowed several days, then called again just to make sure the feet were on the shelves. The young answering voice didn’t understand my question, and I had to enunciate “pigs’ feet” slowly and carefully. A blank moment of unfamiliarity was followed by a transfer “to the meat manager.” No pigs’ feet now and no trotters in the future. Clearly, I had been had in query #1. Maybe they took it as a prank call like “Do you have Prince Albert in a can?” Regarding “un-pickled” fresh trotters, I ran up against another brick wall. Slaughter house owners gave my farmer son-in-law a sharp “No,” while the one pig-raising couple I personally know reported that they composted their pettitoes, so had nothing for me.

So, what’s going here, and why do the Greg’s Meat Market folks act like I have three heads, and what’s up with farmers trashing their trotters? I went to the internet, and came to my rescue, proving it hadn’t always been so in Vermont. Grocery market ads from as late as the 1990s told a different story. For instance, I could have called Jewett’s Discount Meats in nearby Pittsford and a clerk would have cheerfully answered my inquiry with a “Yes, sir, we have fresh pig’s feet for $.69 a pound!” (They also offered “Vermont Rabbit” at $2.49 a pound.) Or even at the beginning of this century, Salem’s Market in Bennington still touted their “Pickled Pigs Feet in Jar.” (The other bellwether food still around then was blood sausage, aka boudin noir or black pudding. Joining trotters in the gone-extinct-in-Vermont category, these taste-tempters must now await a report on a true English breakfast at a true English eatery joined to a story about true English kippers if it’s ever going to make a local comeback.)

I also head scratch about the loss of pigs’ feet (and blood sausage) in cooking traditions held by the many Vermonters with French Canadian roots. That’s certainly not true north of the border, where Quebecers can be as stubborn in their food allegiances as they are in speaking la langue française. Going “whole hog” in Quebec shows up in the offerings of such farms as Le Porc de Beaurivage south of Quebec City, or the well-known Montreal restaurant Au Pied de Cochon, where plates of pettitoes can be had cooked in the obligatory three pounds of butter and stuffed with foi gras. My next-door neighbor Roger reports that when he was a boy the old ways once held here, too, recalling fondly how his grandparents served big holiday meals of pigs’ feet and blood sausage.

To date, I’ve found no answer as to the sad disdain for pettitoes gripping Vermont folks nowadays. I can guess it connects to prosperity and the abundance of choice viands we enjoy which then “feeds” rejection of the “yucky” bits. Yet there is also hunger in this state, a fact made obvious when we have our church food drives. Why are nutritious parts (pigs’ feet are just one example) of slaughtered creatures being discarded? Why do they embrace tout le porc in Quebec and not here? Responses from readers will be much appreciated.

Yet, my sad tale of trotter decline does have a happy ending…of sorts. First, farmer daughter Monika collected a whopping TWO pigs’ feet from a raw milk customer who also processes his own pigs. These delicacies now repose in our freezer awaiting companions, while my New Orleans-born friend here has his smoker at the ready in a moment’s notice. (A quick check shows that Louisianans have not all lost their taste for trotters!)

But, what about poor Jersey boy Wayne? Several weeks ago, pride was swallowed when I did indeed go down in flames, and I ordered a large jar of Hannah’s pickled feet through Amazon. Hannah’s says it’s based in Memphis, and any trotters fan must assume a pork product from the Blues City will be first rate. Plus, the online picture clearly showed there was no shortage of the required amount of food coloring. The pigs’ feet were on my front steps pronto, and I didn’t waste time getting them to Wayne’s house. Pausing to salute the doomed chestnut tree, I entered to hand my friend over 4.25 pounds of pickled pleasure. His smile would have stretched from Newark to Trenton as he recalled pigs’ feet of yesteryear. (Truthfulness demands a statement that Wayne came down with gout shortly thereafter and had to miss coffee for several days. He swore, however, that the trotters were only partly at fault, and he’s washing them thoroughly now to remove as much salt as possible.)

I have to end with what might be called a “foot note.” In recycling the shipping box that once held the pickled pettitoes, I spotted a return address which should obviously have been somewhere in Memphis. Well, perhaps Wayne’s delicacies had once hung around in Tennessee, but I now surmise they arrived so quickly to us in Vermont for having come, as it turned out, from the Galactic Shop in Robbinsville, New Jersey. Mouth agape with my own smile from Newark to Trenton, I felt the circle had indeed been closed.

Ken McFarland. who reports for Pie & Chai from small town Vermont, was born in Martinsville, VA and grew up in Durham, NC. He notes that while this article addresses consumption of a certain part of a slaughtered fellow creature, he himself wouldn’t kill an ant or a stink bug, and so feels totally in the wrong about every aspect of the meat consumption process. Yet he also grew up in a state where eating barbeque (a noun not a verb–and always pork, of course) was very nearly a legal requirement. Thus, his never-to-be-resolved conundrum.