When I was working in
recently, I stopped by a flea market, one of those which is only open on weekends. Unlike many of these markets, though, it’s in a building—a giant structure which has dozens of small stores within it. Kind of like a flea market mall, I guess. It’s kind of a strange place. You could, if you wanted to, buy a puppy, a katana sword, a DVD, and an Amish dessert all under one roof. Your place for gray market values, I assume, to borrow a “Simpsons’ joke. Delaware
One of the butcher shops had something I’d never seen before on sale, so of course I had to give it a try. I’ve eaten many parts of the pig (sometimes all mixed together, such as in a sausage or a hot dog), but thus far the ears had eluded me. According to my brief research, this dish is a part of Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Vietnamese, Lithuanian, Spanish, Bulgarian, and American soul food cuisines. I bought a pound, which worked out to be four ears.
There was one huge problem. It was a butcher shop, as I said, meaning they weren’t precooked or in a can. I was going to have to use the stove, which throughout my life I’ve gone years at a stretch without doing. As with the aloe, in this case I didn’t have a choice, so grudgingly I did so. Since I was in a hotel at the time, I froze the ears and cooked them a few weeks later. I consulted several websites for recipes, and used the one I considered the easiest, using the herbs and spices that were available.
As far as first impressions go, being a child of the suburbs and not farm-raised, I was shocked at how big the ears were. Each one was about seven inches by six inches, and they reminded the exhumer in me of human scapulas (shoulder blades) in size and appearance. Let’s put it this way—if someone tries to remake “Reservoir Dogs” using an all pig cast, the Mr. Blonde-torturing-the-cop scene will probably have to take about half an hour all by itself.
After defrosting the frozen ears in the microwave (a button that I’d never had the need for before), the cooking began. The first step was an initial partial boiling in a big water-filled pot. This parboiling was done to clean the ears a bit, to remove any dirt and (this is kind of gross) any remaining hair. Once this was done the ears went into a second large pot, and covered in water and tablespoons each of cinnamon, marjoram, and onion powder (I wasn’t familiar with “marjoram,” and I still think its name is confusingly similar to “margarine”). I brought this a boil and then added a tablespoon each of salt and pepper. This resulting concoction was simmered for three and a half hours. As for the odor, I thought it was pleasant, while other witnesses weren’t so complimentary, and proclaimed it as “just tolerable.” And clearly the spices may have affected the smell, for good or bad.
Once finished, it looked kind of weird. The skin, which would easily slough off with a fork, was brownish. The underlying cartilage was white. Overall the meat was extremely tender. After a couple of bites I put some spicy mustard on them.
The taste was good. It was maybe a little different than other pork cuts, but still had the traditional pig flavor. But, to address the obvious questions, there are some visual and texture issues. The ears didn’t look particularly appetizing. I’m certainly aware than many folks don’t like to eat meat which they can identify as a body part, and obviously this is clearly the case here. You’re eating an ear—it’s bizarre. Even Mike Tyson spat out the chunk of Evander Holyfield’s ear and didn’t consume it. The texture is odd, and could be off putting to some (most?). The underlying cartilage is chewy and firm, especially along the ear ridges and folds, while the skin is very soft.
But, like I said, I enjoyed them—I ate two happily, the rest being frozen for a rainy day. I would readily consider having them again, even more enthusiastically if I didn’t have to prepare them. To sum up, then, to paraphrase the cliché expression, maybe you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but you can make a tasty meal for those that aren’t too squeamish.