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  • "The Republic of Porkdom":Pork Consumption, Kentucky, and the Cotton South
  • Jerome Dotson (bio)

You've gotta take what little pleasures you can findWhen you got sweet Kentucky ham on your mind,on your mind Nothin' but sweet Kentucky ham on your mind

"Sweet Kentucky Ham," lyrics by Dave Frishberg, 1981

Pork was the most widely consumed meat in the United States by the antebellum era. From the newly claimed lands in the West to the Northeast and South, hog meat graced the tables of countless Americans.1 In the South, pork has been a dietary staple since the 1700s, and southern consumption of pork has a distinct history.2 "Although pork has never been solely a Southern commodity in this country," writes food historian John Egerton, "the passion of Southerners for the meat has always had a special quality."3 [End Page 359]

The prominence of hog meat did not escape the attention of those traveling in the South. Travel writing from the early 1800s helped to promote an association between pork and southern culture. Massachusetts clergyman Henry Knight used culinary differences to make regional distinctions in 1824: "It is remarked that, north of the Potomac, one may find good beef, and bad bacon; and south of the Potomac, good bacon and bad beef."4 Harriet Martineau, an English writer traveling in the United States during the 1830s, commented on the frequency of pork consumption and the various ways southerners incorporated pork into their dishes. "Throughout the south," she affirmed, "the traveler meets little else than pork, under all manner of disguises."5 As Martineau discovered, southerners even flavored their vegetables with salt pork or lard. Enslaved African cooks also combined salt pork with vegetables to stretch their rations.6

Furthermore, regardless of the time of day, pork was a fixture on the southern table.7 The primacy of pork as a component of southern cuisine is best illustrated by New England schoolteacher Emily Burke, in 1850, who compared the importance of hog meat in the southern diet to bread: "As it respects the swine, I believe the people of the South would not think they could subsist without their flesh; bacon, instead of bread, seems to be their staff of life. Consequently, you see bacon upon a Southern table, three times a day, either boiled or fried."8 Burke's observation suggests how southern dietary norms differed from the eating habits of other regions in the United States. For many Americans, bread was an essential component of the daily diet. Noted exponent of dietetics Sylvester Graham asserted bread was essential for both physical and moral well being.9 Even if swine were consumed from coast to coast in the antebellum period, in the South pork [End Page 360] assumed a heightened cultural significance.10

Perhaps this is why country ham has long held a special place on the table in many parts of the South. While some have suggested that the earliest country hams originated in Smithfield, Virginia, both Tennessee and Kentucky have also laid claim to the country ham tradition.11 Recipes for preparing country hams can be found in the earliest cookbooks from those states. Mary Randolph's The Virginia Housewife; Or Methodical Cook (1824) and Lettice Bryan's The Kentucky Housewife (1839) offered suggestions for curing and smoking country hams. Pork-infused dishes were common even if sides of pork were not served as part of the meal. These early cookbooks contain recipes for lard biscuits, ham truffle, and shoat cheese. But even recipes for beef dishes like roasted veal and brisket called for lard or bacon fat. The pages of The Kentucky Housewife suggest that pork was a frequently-used ingredient in the fare of Kentuckians by the antebellum period.12 Songs like "Sweet Kentucky Ham" continued to link pork to the Bluegrass State 150 years later.

Kentucky played a vital role in the spread of pork to the cotton South by the 1830s.13 Food scholar Matt Garcia challenges historians to interrogate the entire food chain, from production to distribution to consumption, and when viewed from cultivation to purchase to ingestion, pork links southern states that are most often studied separately.14...