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Along These Lines

Sweet and Sour Pork
By Nick Thomas

Despite its Northern name, the Boston Butt is a favorite cut of meat in the South. It's the best part of the hog to roast and in some areas it is also known as pulled pork. Being so tender, it's easy to yank (if you'll pardon the term) apart, and break into smaller pieces for the sweetest sandwiches around.

But the origin of the term "Boston Butt" is probably not what you're thinking, since the cut actually comes from the upper part of the shoulder on the front leg, rather than "down south." It seems that butchers of pre-revolutionary New England would pack their meat into casks or barrels, known as "butts," for storage and shipment. Other parts of the country soon began referring to the hog shoulder region as "Boston Butt," and the name has remained popular today throughout most of the US.

If you are fortunate enough to acquire a freshly barbequed Boston Butt, your family will likely congratulate you for "bringing home the bacon." The origin of this familiar expression is a little obscure, but possibly comes from the 12th century English custom of giving a young couple bacon if they were still happy after a year of marriage. Sadly, today, with the high incidence of marital breakdown, it's more likely that the divorce lawyers will be the one's pocketing the pork.

And no offence to any specific politicians (because I prefer to offend them all equally), but hogs have also found their way into government. A familiar term for America, "Uncle Sam," is said to have come from a New York pork packer named Uncle Sam Wilson. He shipped a boatload of several hundred barrels of pork to U.S. troops during the war of 1812. The pork barrels, nearly enough to feed the entire army, were stamped "U.S." and the initials would forever link the country to its generous "Uncle Sam."

While Yankees may be credited for the origin of the Boston Butt, folks in the South are responsible for a more dubious political hog. The "pork barrel" − that familiar reference to appropriations secured by Congressmen for local, pet projects − has fed irate political newspaper columnists for decades, and soured many people to the political system.

America's political pork seems to have had its origin in the years before the civil war, from a somewhat common practice in the South. On special occasions Southern plantation owners would place salt pork in big wooden barrels for the workers, who would rush to snatch what they could before the supply ran dry. Along these lines, politicians have been grabbing state or federal dollars for pet projects with equal enthusiasm ever since, often themselves living high on the hog.

Nick Thomas is a freelance writer. He has been a features writer for over 80 newspapers and magazines including The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, and the Christian Science Monitor.

Published April 14, 2011

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