A dissolute aristocrat dreams Don Quixote who dreams Miguel Cervantes writing his novel Don Quixote who dreams Pablo Picasso painting two lonely figures on a hill. Our narrator dreams the Knight of La Mancha dreaming an inn as a castle, prostitutes as maidens, and stockfish as trout. I read of Castile and Alcalá de Henares and see before me Jamón Ibérico hanging from rafters slowly curing into a delicious dark red with glistening white slices of ham.
In Neolithic China by the lower Liao River, a clan elder dreams of pork belly; near the end of the Bronze Age, the king of an island west of the Greek mainland dines on roasted pork with his faithful servant; a Roman cook living during the rule of Octavian carefully empties out a pig’s stomach and stuffs it with meat, brains and eggs; Hernando de Soto has visions of pigs in Tampa, Florida; in England around 1760 Robert Bakewell fantasizes about crossing European and Chinese pigs; while I’m enraptured by forests and meadows filled with Mangalitsa, Red Wattle, and Ossabaw pigs from the Sea Islands of South Carolina to the Piney Woods of East Texas.
In Northeastern Africa, around the same time that clans in China begin the unending research of grilling, roasting, boiling, pickling pig, the mustard green from varieties of Brassica Juncea boils in pots of water resulting in a mild, yet tangy taste. Dietary studies of African-American communities in Eastern Virginia in the late nineteenth century narrate families canning “Sweet potatoes, string beans, cabbage, and mustard greens often served with a bit of salted or smoked herring.”
The Picayune Creole Cookbook advises, the “large leaves are cooked the same as Spinach, or they may be boiled with salt meat and served as greens.”
Vincent Van Gogh dreams A Still Life With Mussels and Shrimp in the autumn of 1886 in Paris. The Larousse Gastronomique imagines shrimps as “Little Crustaceans very much in use for hors-d’oeuvre and garnishes.” Vietnamese refugees settling along the coast transformed from fishermen to shrimpers, surviving the Ku Klux Klan and enriching a dynamic, multicultural South.
This nostalgic South still used “Mammy” as a way of selling the “Old South” as in The Old Southern Tea Room’s menu which included, “Colored waitresses in bright “mammy” costumes, bandannas and hoop earrings, bring you steaming shrimp gumbo with crisp corn sticks, tempting salads.” To sit at a lunch counter and be treated as an equal, treated as a guest by a host, is to dream of a home as in this photograph from Houston, March 4, 1960.
I dream of a dish across space and time combining Gulf Coast land, sea and sky, sharing the taste of the people who have lived and worked on these shores, bringing together on a table the shared taste of Cactus and Shrimp Gorditas, Roasted Pork Banh Mì, Slow Braised Mustard Greens, and in that dream to cook and eat such meals dreams Houston, New Orleans, Biloxi, Mobile, Pensacola. Begin the begin.
Pork Belly (skin on) from Revival Market massaged with coconut oil and apple-cider vinegar. Time for the rub.
Cayenne, Brown Sugar, and Ground Mustard.
Oh my, the glaze. I let it sit in the refrigerator for a few hours, walk outside, clean out the smoker, light coals and mesquite wood, then when a white smoke begins pouring out, fumata bianca, announcing a new pope, I bring the pork belly out and let the magic begin.
Keeping the temperature between 20 and 250 degrees, I plan on several hours of intent watching and thinking . . . time to meet the Gulf Coast Shrimp, lovely large crustaceans from Whole Foods.
No peeling, I place them in a lemon juice bath and sit back down on the patio, watching white clouds trail out of a black cylinder, and dream of Coahuiltecan and Karankawa tribes living along the Gulf Coast from Galveston Island to Brownsville and then over into south central Texas, and cooking with chilies, beans, cactus; tasting clams, crab, red snapper, shrimp, deer, pecans and mesquite. Time passes and the pork belly has taken on a lovely golden amber and dark brown patina. Time for the shrimp.
The world smokes. The shrimp only takes an hour, and their shells provide a double-container approach slowly cooking them on the inside. Meanwhile, the plot darkens.
I take the pork and shrimp off, carry inside, and cut slices of the pork belly–a nice red line between skin and fat, with the meat very moist, succulent.
The shrimp have turned a brownish red, a complement to the the color of the pork belly.
Time to plate. I’ve steam mustard green leaves and now assemble–cut of pork belly, offering of mustard green, and shelled shrimp. A taste of the Gulf Coast.
What to listen to while eating? I leave with Clifton Chenier’s Houston Boogie. Bon Appétit!