Explaining the Southern New Year's Traditions of Pork Jowls

illustration of a pig with its meat cuts lined out
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We probably need to explain what a hog jowl is. Some Yankees have never heard of this cut of pork. It's the "cheek" of the hog. It tastes and cooks similar to thick cut bacon. It's a tough cut that is typically smoked and cured. Hog jowl is used to season beans and peas, or fried and eaten like bacon.

Health, Prosperity, and Progress

On New Year's Day, hog jowls are traditionally eaten in the south to ensure health, prosperity, and progress.

The south isn't the only place that eats pork on New Year's Day. All over the world people are using marzipan pigs to decorate their tables, partaking in pig's feet, pork sausage, roast suckling pig or pork dumplings. We're just the only ones who put so much faith in the jowl cut.

Hogs and pigs have long been a symbol of prosperity and gluttony. It's why we say someone is "being a pig" when they take more than their share. Some cultures believe that the bigger pig you eat on New Year's, the bigger your wallet will be in the coming year. So, the "fatter" the pig, the "fatter" your wallet.  Spit and pit-roasted pigs are popular New Year's meals.

In the south and other poor areas, pigs were considered symbolic of both health and wealth, because families could eat for the entire winter on the fatty meat one pig produced. Having pork could mean the difference between life and death in a really cold winter.

Pigs have also long symbolized progress. A pig can't turn his head to look back without turning completely around, so it's believed that pigs are always looking to the future. They fit in perfectly with other New Year's celebrations that are all about moving forward and leaving the past behind.

Why Hog Jowls?

You need to learn a bit about the black-eyed pea for an explanation as to why we eat traditional soul foods in the winter.

The short answer is that we eat cured pork because it's winter time and food is hard to come by. Hog jowl is a cured product which stores well for long periods. During the winter, cured pork would be one meat that would be accessible. Most other meats would be hard to find, and our traditions date back to a time when refrigeration wasn't accessible to everyone. 

Plus, it goes well with black-eyed peas and collard greens. It's a good thing the people who made these superstitions up didn't come up with something like snails, cornbread, and black-eyed peas. We don't think it would have caught on.

How to Cook Hog Jowls

Some people only use the jowl to season their black-eyed peas and collard greens. Most in the south would say that's not enough to make you prosperous. You also have to partake in some fried hog jowl.  It's cooked similar to bacon, but hog jowl is a bit tougher and takes a little longer to cook.

Jowl typically comes in a package, sliced like thick bacon or uncut on the "rind." You can leave the rind on, but it's hard to cut through and almost impossible to chew. Most people remove the rind, slice it and fry the slices in a skillet, like bacon, until brown on both sides. It's then drained on a paper towel and served.

 

Since it's a cured food, it typically doesn't need extra salt, but some like to serve it with pepper or hot sauce. If you're a true Southerner, drizzle the pan drippings over a salad or Brussels sprouts. The drippings do make really good peas or greens as well. You can even make really good cornbread with pork fat. Everything is better with bacon fat.