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How hog jowls became a must-have at New Year's Day dinner
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Austin Crump, a meat cutter at The Market on Limestone, packages slices of hog jowls Friday, Dec. 29, 2017, at the Gainesville grocery store. - photo by David Barnes

After a New Year’s Eve toast with champagne at midnight, New Year’s Day brings things down to earth with a plate of Southern cooking that isn’t complete without hog jowls.

The cut of pork from the jaw and cheek of the pig is salt cured and usually sliced similar to bacon. It’s then served along with black-eyed peas and collard greens, or used to season one or both of those dishes.

Nick Ball of Wauka Meadows Farm in Clermont had hog jowls thawing for his family as he spoke Friday about the tradition.

“Most of the time we’ll slice it like bacon, where it’s an eighth of an inch to a quarter-inch thick, and a lot of people they’ll fry it up for New Year’s and cook it just like bacon,” he said. He said sometimes he’ll smoke one whole and then slice it.

Austin Crump, a meat cutter at The Market on Limestone, was slicing hog jowls Friday morning for customers at the grocery store on Limestone Parkway.

“We’ll sell a good couple thousand pounds of it, no problem” around New Year’s, Crump said.

Danny Baker, co-manager at The Market’s sister store J&J Foods on Jesse Jewell Parkway, said “it’s really smoky, a lot smokier than bacon is, but it’s really good.”

The tradition dates as far back as the 18th century, when a landowner would keep the best meat of the hog but give some leftover cuts to enslaved people or, later, sharecroppers, according to Ken Johnston, curator of education at the Northeast Georgia History Center in Gainesville.

“You throw hog jowls or something like that into a big pot of black-eyed peas, and it’s going to cook up nicely and actually be a decent thing to eat,” said Johnston, whose New Year’s Day dinner often includes pork, especially hog jowls.

The traditions of the dirt-poor families of the South eventually spread to all levels of society, he added.

“I don’t know how much there is of the eating of hog jowls and black-eyed peas up North,” Johnston said, “but it’s certainly still a very strong thing down here.”

Ball said he’s heard the traditions date to the Civil War, when Confederate soldiers would carry the cured meat because it didn’t spoil quickly. He also has heard that Union soldiers raiding homes in the South would leave behind the black-eyed peas, considering them not fit to eat, and the Southerners began calling them lucky peas.

But he noted there are many stories about the tradition, with some believing the black-eyed peas represent luck and others thinking they represent pennies. The hog jowls meanwhile might represent health and the collard greens are dollars.

“There’s so many different stories out there ...” Ball said. “But I like the Civil War version better.”

The farmer uses hog jowls at other times of the year in sausage made along with pork shoulder and ham.

Hog jowls are otherwise typically only eaten at New Year’s, but the tradition is strong, passed down through generations.

“People hold on to traditions,” Johnston said. “And it’s also something that is very much culturally and ethnically identified with a specific geographic area, and so that helps it stay in that area.”

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