Sunday, September 26, 2010

Pig Ear Sandwich, Jackson Mississippi

While eating a pig ear sandwich was not high on my bucket list, I have to confess I was intrigued by the stories I heard from my friend, and 208 chef, John Stokes, of a little joint in Jackson, Mississippi that serves up this country style dish.  On a recent trip to Jackson for work, I overheard colleagues taunting a California, self proclaimed, tofu eater about going to the "Big Apple" restaurant for his first pig ear sandwich. I was as elated as he was horrified at this idea and quickly researched my destination.

The Big Apple Restaurant is located on Farish Street a block or two from the heart of downtown Jackson.  Once home to a thriving music scene, Farish Street has since fallen on hard times.  Rumor has it that there are plans to revitalize the area to make it more like Beale Street or Bourbon Street.  I pulled up to find what from the outside appeared to be the perfect local, dive.  Inside the building customers enter long narrow hall, one side of which allows a view of the grill through Plexiglas.  A few men stood around the counter, apparently waiting for their late lunch orders, watching curiously as I placed my order.  I quickly requested a pig ear sandwich, to which the server asked "How many?"  Well despite my slight build, I was not going to be a wimp, so I ordered two.  Two! What was a I thinking as I had no idea if these were even edible.  I ordered mine mild, which was the middle level of heat.  While I stood and waited, watching the large female chef deftly work the grill, a few other patrons filed in and ordered.  Clearly they were regulars as they confidently riffed off orders saying things like "I'll take 2 ears mild, 3 smokes, and a side of fries."  My order arrived and it was then that I realized each sandwich cost a mere $1.05. 

I moved to the back of the restaurant to an old school, Formica table, where I rolled up the sleeves to my business suit and began to unwrap my first sandwich.  What lay inside the wax paper was a messy, moist little sandwich on a bun, about the size of a large slider.  As much as I embrace the whole nose to tail food movement, I admittedly was a little queasy about the ears; the answer was to dig in without looking too closely.  The bun was soft and moist and layered with the thin slices of meat, some sort of a slaw and mustard.  The meat or ear was tender and totally unlike what I pictured.  Had you not told me what it was, I would have thought it was some sort of thinly sliced meat.  I like spicy, hot food and the mild was a good level.  There was a little heat to it, but it did not leave me sweating or overpower the salty taste.  After finishing the first and licking my fingers, I hesitated.  While I appreciated the down home, nothing goes to waste mentality of the sandwich, did I really enjoy it enough to indulge in a second?  The answer was no, but having grown up with depression era parents, I could not throw away a good sandwich, and thus unwrapped and ate my second and likely last ever, pig ear sandwich. 

As is true of any good dive, the experience makes it special.  While slopping down my sandwiches, a number of men came and went, all yelling out a hello and giving a nod of approval at my meal.  As I was leaving one guy who walked around like he owned the place, asked me if I grew up in the country, which apparently would have explained why a white girl, in a business suit, in the middle of the day, was on Farish Street enjoying a pig ear sandwich.  We talked at length about the area, what it was like growing up there, seeing musicians like BB King playing at the neighborhood juke joints, and how he hoped it would some day be restored to its former glory.  I walked up and down the block, talked to a few locals who reminisced about the old days and took in the vibe that made this community feel like an urban cousin of many a Mississippi Delta town. 

While I have checked off the pig ear sandwich, I do have reason to revisit The Big Apple.  I returned home to Oxford bragging about losing my pig ear virginity and in a weird synchronistic fashion, Oxford was showing a local documentary on the Big Apple, from which I learned that the smokes refer to a smoked sausage sandwich.  I cannot wait to go back and this time swagger in confidently, ordering a couple of smokes, and a side of fries. 

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