spiny chayotes and fancy pork butt…

…nothing is really ever what it seems.

This wicked little grenade conceals a very pleasant and refreshing cucumber-like squash, but I almost walked past it at the farmers’ market out of fear and perhaps a little disgust. I was searching for ideas for Mother’s birthday luncheon in Savannah – I wanted a new cultural challenge and I needed a butter time out, so the produce section seemed like a good starting point. While the chayote reminded me to look, think and taste twice before judging, a nascent love affair with carnitas framed my week, all thanks to the long and creative life of Diana Kennedy.

Mother’s birthday carnitas

Accompanied by some tantalizing recipes, Kennedy’s obituary popped up on my feed two weeks ago, and along with the alluring tale of a life well lived came the promise of orange, oregano and cinnamon pork. So now I was committed; I mean, after all, it was the respectful thing to do. Following a successful carnitas test run I began to learn a little more about regional Mexican cuisines, an open-ended but delicious task I will attack for years to come. Per usual, I claim no particular insight or mastery, just fascination, curiosity and hunger.

Diana Kennedy, who tapped the “soul of Mexican cooking,” died in late July, and had it not been for my inbox of foodie newsletter announcements I’m embarrassed to admit I might not have ever known her name. She was a meticulous chef, author, and pioneer, but apparently also quite a character, remembered as stubborn, unapologetically independent, fearless, towering authority, sharp-witted. I loved her immediately. She was 99.

“In person, she was more brilliant, brutal and devastatingly funny than I’d imagined, telling libidinous jokes and punctuating conversations with vicious, eloquent swearing. She shared the details of long-held vendettas with glee. She cackled and growled. She complained about everything that didn’t meet her standards — cookbooks, compliments, foreign policies, muffins.”

Tejal Rao, New York Times, July 25, 2002

The birthday party was lovely and I drove home Monday afternoon, stopping for gas in Metter, a little city along an excessively rural 2.5 hour stretch of flat, scrubby low country. In this area Southern accents are as pronounced as the friendly disposition of the residents, so it came as no surprise that an unseen voice on the other side of the pump struck up a conversation: “How about I fill you up and you fill me up?” Ummm…here’s the thing – in middle Georgia the word fill sounds very much like feel.

I demurely answered, “No thank you,” because, you know, manners.

But when an Idris Elba look-alike peeked his head around the pump, I realized I made a terrible mistake. By that I mean his Suburban takes over 30 gallons and my Civic holds but 12. Ice broken, we chatted about gas prices, MPG, how little we drove during COVID and how we passed the time during the homebound months of 2021. Naturally we got around to cooking and swapped our respective recipes for smoked barbecue butt (him) and carnitas (me).

Meanwhile, the skinny mullet at pump 4 overheard our discussion and piped in with his philosophy on smoked brisket. It was a party at the BP. Despite my significant fears about the shredded state of American racial and cultural relations, our unlikely trio bonded over octane and food for ten full minutes. Neither of them may ever make my signature Rosh Hashanah brisket, and I’m not about to invest in a smoker, but to me this encounter was a hopeful, kumbaya moment. It totally feeled my bucket.

The culinary version of this lesson came by way of pork – I learned last week that pork shoulder is merely a dainty way of saying butt, as in Boston butt. However my carnitas recipe specifically called for pork shoulder, which I could not find anywhere. Standing in front of 100 pounds of the exact pork I needed, I felt like an idiot when I finally asked the butcher. He looked at me, then the vat of pork, then back at me: “Ma’am?” But really, who could blame me – even on a pig I know the ass is nowhere near the shoulder. Was this

  1. a matter of etiquette and discretion? As much as the 12-year-old in me finds humor in the dumbest things, even I am capable of saying “pork butt” without giggling.
  2. some bizarre twist in the English language that everybody chooses to ignore, like mispronouncing nuclear?
  3. was I just completely ignorant about piggy parts?

Turns out, during the Revolutionary War the barrels that were used to store pork were known as butts. The shoulder cut was a specialty in New England, hence Boston butts. So #2. Okay, and #3. Again, sometimes life is never what it seems.

Oven Carnitas

  • 3-4 pounds boneless pork shoulder
  • 1 Tbs kosher salt
  • 1 Tbs dried oregano
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 2 juicy oranges, quartered
  • 1 lime, quartered
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and quartered
  • 6-8 large garlic cloves, crushed
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • a drizzle of neutral oil

Preheat oven to 350° and arrange racks to accommodate a large Dutch oven.

Trim fat as desired and cut pork into 2-3” cubes and toss with salt, pepper and oregano in a large cast iron or enameled Dutch oven.

Squeeze the orange and lime juices over that pork and add the citrus carcasses to the pork along with onion, garlic, bay leaves and broken cinnamon sticks. Toss to distribute evenly around the pot.

Drizzle oil on top, cover and cook for 2.5 hours.

Remove from oven and preheat broiler. Remove the pork cubes only onto a rimmed sheet pan and shred with two forks. Broil shredded pork for 5 minutes to crisp, watching carefully.

Strain remaining juices from Dutch oven and add back to broiled pork. Serve warm with tortillas and fixins.

a quick broil crisps the succulent pork to perfection

The recent rise of food trucks serving street tacos has normalized the nuanced flavors and incredible variety of authentic Mexican food. Suburban Taco Tuesday doesn’t count in my opinion – that’s when ground beef in red sauce meets shredded Colby-Jack cheese and iceberg lettuce in a crunchy corn boat. For one dollar. Not saying I won’t eat one of those with great pleasure, but regional Mexican cuisine is a different beast. It can be savory and mellow, spicy and electric, and any combination thereof – I think it’s worth my time to learn more. And of course it’s worth another cookbook.

Serendipity may have planted that little Mexican gourd, but life backhanded me another iconic female chef to emulate. So Diana and Julia, I will do my best to live and cook in full color, without apology or regret. And I clearly need to up my swearing game because apparently y’all were bad.

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