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In the past. when looking at recipes that included smoked pork neck bones, I always asked myself if bacon could be substituted bacon for the neck bones. Smoked pork neck bones are not easy to find – they are a humble ingredient and most groceries do not get whole animals, so no neck bones. After a meal cooked over the past weekend, I now know that the answer is no, you can’t substitute them, and yes, you need to seek them out.

Bacon and pork neck bones are not even close. Both pork and both smoked, but then they diverge. The reason is texture and is hard to pinpoint at first. Then you wake up to pack the leftovers for work and a deli container of the okra soup falls from your hand and you find that the liquid has solidified from the rich gelatin in the neck bones. That texture softens when heated, but that added richness never goes away. Once you have the dish with it, the same dish without would never do.

Since returning from Charleston, I have been looking for the time needed to make a real “meat and three” dinner for the family. Lunch at Martha Lou’s made a mark on me like no other meal has even done and, despite ranking meals at Husk and McCrady’s as some of the finest meals that I have ever had, the meal from Martha Lou’s is the most lasting. The trick has been finding time. This food is not something that you throw together for a quick evening dinner. You need long cook times. You cannot rush the process of building these flavors or developing these textures.

Since we had two plates at Martha Lou’s, we had a crack at two distinct meat and threes, so paring it down was very difficult. So difficult in fact, that we could not do it. We created a new category, the meat and four. Now mind you, I am firmly in the “I don’t fry at home” camp. I am also in the “Don’t try to match the best fried chicken in the world at home” camp. With that in mind, I scoured our menu from Martha Lou’s, (photocopied on pink paper, no glossy paper, no folder) and saw baked turkey wings. Now that I could do. With that, it was decided turkey wings, okra soup, collard greens, Lima bean dinner, and giblet rice (only I switched to barley since it is healthier and I don’t have any Carolina Gold rice). Note that giblet rice, for some reason, is pronounced gibb (like Barry Gibb) – let, as opposed to jib (like cut of your jib) – let.

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After scouring my growing spiral bound cookbook collection and some good online sources, I found that each recipe for a singular dish is very different. For example, for okra soup, some recipes use beef, some chicken, and some pork. Despite this, most recipes for side dishes, and not even the same side dishes, start the same. You start with animal fat, celery, onion, bay leaves, and thyme. Then things diverge, but come back to harmony when you add rich stock and simmer for a long period. You are coaxing the flavors and textures from ingredients that on the spectrum of food costs are near the bottom. It does not make them undesirable, it simply means that you may have to work a little more. That work pays off with a meal worthy of a much higher price tag. Just to give you a little guide. All included this meal cost us less than $10 and gave us 8 meals (6 for adults and 2 for children).

After asking some big Southern food authorities about what they recommend, I came to the conclusion that for all things not giblet rice related, smoked pork neck bones were the standby. That was easy enough. I added in some smoked tails, as well, for variety.  I found both the neck bones and tails at the local Mexican grocery, where I know that they butcher their own meat.  With the giblet rice, I used the giblets from the same turkey from which the wings came as well as using some of the scraps remaining on the carcass after butchering the turkey. Even still, I had a singular tray of meats to pull from, making at least 75% of the process simpler.

Starting the night before, I soaked dried lima beans and set out all of the onions, celery, thyme, and bay leaves. The next morning, I finely chopped the onions and celery and started the Lima beans. After spending much of the day out with the family, I started the remaining sides mid-afternoon. By 8 PM, the house smelled amazing and was exceeding hot with four pots bubbling away on the stove and the turkey wings roasting in the oven.

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By this point, we knew that the greens, okra soup, and giblet barley/rice were on their way. Not the greatness of Martha Lou’s, but technically sound and containing whatever soul I had to spare.

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The greens were porky, bitter, and smoky. The potlikker was gloriously textured and spiced with chile de arbol. They were the equal to this year’s NYD greens with chunks of smoked pork neck throughout. The okra soup was smoky, studded with okra, and rich with tomatoes. It was the favorite of the family, but my favorite was the giblet rice. The sweetness of the giblets matched with the nuttiness of the barley and the rich turkey stock was so good that it set me back in my seat. The lima bean dinner, however, was not what I had in Charleston at either Martha Lou’s or Hannibal’s. This version was the color of burnt sienna versus the gray-yellow mush that I was expecting. After tasting it, it was clear that adding molasses was the culprit. The flavors were great, but different. That sweet bitterness was there where it wasn’t expected. Not a failure of a dish, but rather a failure to mimic what I had. In the end, I am positive that there was sugar of some kind added to the Lima beans that we had in Charleston, it is now a matter of testing to determine which sweetener was added.

Again, this was not Martha Lou’s. If I cooked these dishes for 50 years, I may never get to that level once. I’d pay thousands of my kids’ hypothetical college money to get those recipes and a weekend of hands-on training with Martha Lou. In fact, if I could pick someone to get a cookbook published that does not have one, count me in for Martha Lou. Although, it is likely that even with those recipes, I would not be able to replicate it without the experience and skilled hand of Ms. Gadsden. Even without those experiences or recipes, with a few simple ingredients and techniques, even I could put together a meal of delicious food cooked from the soul.

Okra Soup

  • 2 tsp. bacon fat
  • 1 pound smoked pork neck bones
  • 3 sprigs thyme
  • 6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 red onion, finely chopped
  • 1 stalk celery, finely chopped
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 2 tbsp. tomato paste
  • 1 lb. okra, trimmed and cut into 1″ slices
  • 3 cups turkey stock
  • 3 cups ham stock
  • 1 28-oz. can diced tomatoes, crushed by hand
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Step one: In a deep soup pot, heat fat and add onion, celery, thyme, and garlic. Cook until translucent, but adding no color.

Step two: Push veg to one side and spoon tomato past directly onto cooking surface and walk away for 3-5 minutes allowing paste to caramelize.

Step three: Add remaining ingredients and cook for hours. Continue to taste and season. When desired texture and flavor is reached, turn heat to low, remove neck bones, pull meat from bones, and add them back to the pot. Serve.

Giblet Rice

  • 1 tablespoon schmalz
  • 1 set of turkey giblets and scrap turkey from carcass
  • 1 stalk celery, finely chopped
  • 1 cup red onion
  • 3 sprigs thyme
  • 1 teaspoon dried marjoram
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 2 cups rich, roasted turkey stock
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 cup hulled barley
  • Water
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1 green onion and handful of parsley
  • Hot sauce

Step one: In a enameled oven, heat fat and add onion, celery, herbs, and garlic. Cook until translucent, but adding no color.

Step two: Add offal and cook until browned.

Step three: Add barley to toast. Cook for 3-5 minutes.

Step four: Add turkey stock and cook until it is absorbed. Taste. If more time is needed, add water and continue cooking. It should be sticky, not loose.

Step five: When done, top with green onions and hot sauce.

Lima Bean Dinner
  • 1/2 pound dried lima beans, soaked overnight
  • 1 teaspoon bacon fat
  • 1/2 yellow onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 2 stalks chopped celery
  • 2 teaspoons mace
  • 1 teaspoon of tomato paste
  • 1 pound smoked pork neck bones
  • 1 tablespoon cane syrup
  • 2 sprigs thyme
  • 2 cups of turkey stock
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Step one: In a sauce pan, heat fat and add onion, celery, thyme, mace, and garlic. Cook until translucent, but adding no color.

Step two: Push veg to one side and spoon tomato past directly onto cooking surface and walk away for 3-5 minutes allowing paste to caramelize.

Step three: Scrape contents of pan to a slow cooker and add remaining ingredients and water to cover by a few inches. Cook on high setting for 6 hours.

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