By Lee Sullivan
Random Writers Week 12 Topic: What is your most memorable meal?
I come from a long line of farmers, harvesters both of crops and of animals. In addition to the cows, pigs, chickens, corn, peanuts and fresh vegetables that were grown to sell to others and to markets, my family always had well stocked pantries and freezers with the gathering of these ‘fruits’ of their labors.
Growing up in the south afforded me many opportunities to eat foods that may seem a bit odd to most, especially you Yankees out there. If you know anything at all about southerners, you know they don’t waste anything when it comes time to take an animal to slaughter. Very few ‘pieces and parts’ went unused, so in addition to the regular supply of bacon, pork chops, ground beef, sausages and steaks, there were always other miscellaneous meats to be found. It wasn’t at all uncommon to open the freezer and find some eerily recognizable shaped parcels wrapped in white butcher’s paper and sealed with masking tape. Each package’s contents would be identified with stamped block letters in purple ink. The largest of these packages usually a contained a head and the oblong skinny packages probably held feet or hooves of some kind. With or without the stamped words, you just knew what these were.
I could handle the white packages all wrapped up in the freezer but I found it pretty unnerving when I would open a big, boiling pot on the stove to find the snout of a pig staring back at me. I wouldn’t have eaten it if my life depended on it, but I knew my grandpa was just a day away from a new batch of his beloved Hog’s Head Cheese, or Souse, as it was called in our house. To say that most of these southern delicacies grossed me out would be an understatement. I was a super picky eater as a child and I did tend to stick to the more traditional meats that you can find in any grocery store today.
However, there was one dish that I remember with the fondest of memories. It was prepared and served every New Year’s Day by my Granny Walker. It was my grandmother’s world famous Hog Hashlet. Okay, maybe it was only famous to our little immediate family of nine but that doesn’t matter. This meal and this day each year was very special and memorable to me.
I would look forward to this gathering and dinner (that’s what we called the meal at noon) all year long. Not only did my grandmother prepare this dish I loved so much, she would spend hours in the kitchen cooking up all kinds of nom noms for us to enjoy. For my father, she cooked a coconut pie using coconut flavoring because he didn’t like the coconut pieces. For the rest of the family, a coconut pie with the coconut pieces. This was in addition to other desserts like pecan pie and banana pudding. She would make rice to go with the hash and we could always count on some kind of greens being served. We had the customary black eyed peas and she was a tyrant about the fact that everyone had to have at least a spoon of them or else their year would completely go to shit. That may not have been the way she phrased it but we knew that’s what she meant so we devoured our peas, but only after saturating them with homemade pepper sauce.
So, let’s get back to the Hashlet. As a child, I can remember asking what was in this delicious soup and being told it was mostly made with ribs, liver and lights. The meats were boiled in water with seasonings and a few hot peppers. It was mostly just a broth, but when poured over pieces of thinly fried cornbread, it became one of the most heavenly things I have ever eaten. The meat was cut up into bite size pieces. The hog liver was a very course meat that seemed to be served in crumbles more than slices. The lights. Oh the lights. This was my favorite part. I could not wait to shove forkfuls of this spongy, soft, porous meat in my mouth. It wasn’t at all chewy and seemed to just melt when you started eating it.
I did some research before writing this blog post because I wasn’t sure if what we called Hog Hashlet was actually a real dish or just something my grandmother made up so she could use the last of the hog parts. Turns out, this is a very real dish dating back long before my grandmother. I found versions of granny’s recipe in collections from all over the world. As it turns out, one of the dishes I found was called Hasslet. I’m assuming my grandmother’s Hashlet was simply a bastardized renaming of a centuries old dish. I have to admit that little tidbit made me feel less like a pieces and parts eating country bumpkin and more like an international food connoisseur.
I’m not sure at what age I realized I didn’t know what lights were. By the time I found out the more scientific term I was already hooked. There was no looking back or thinking about the grossness of the idea of eating what I found out was simply the lungs of a pig.