Eating hot-buttered grits and wondering, “Are you livin’ high on the hog OR eatin’ too far back on the beef?”

by Angela Perez

A girlfriend of mine from Boston called me this morning and told me she’s buying a brand new red BMW. The conversation went like this:

Me: “Good gracious, woman, you livin’ high on the hawg aintcha?”
Friend: “What did you just say?”
Me: “What do you mean?”
Friend: “I mean, I don’t understand the words you just used. What is ‘high on the hog’?”
Me: “Oh, well, uh, it means that you are living well. You know, living life. Getting paid.”
Friend: “That is some country-assed shit you’re talking about.”
Me: “Is it? Hmmm…felt right to me.”
Friend: [laughs]

After we hung up, despite me living all over the world, my Southern turns of phrase are still deeply entrenched in my everyday speech. Ain’t going nowhere. And that made me feel good. Whew, I’m not losing myself to more cosmopolitan colloquialisms. I pondered the “country-assed shit” I say while I made coffee (some Stumptown “Holler Mountain” – I’m hooked on it) and cooked up some cheap grits (regular Quaker Old-Fashioned grits – I’ve been hooked on them for decades; none of that artisanal, $10 a bag stuff, mixed in some processed American cheese – I prefer this in my grits to sharp cheddar or any “real” cheese. Also, I don’t like cream or any other frippery in my grits besides butter, salt, and pepper. My Southern granny made Quaker grits and that’s what I make to this day. However, she also drank Sanka whilst I buy expensive coffee. I am a woman of many pure and impure contradictions. That reminds me, have you seen the new Folgers rebranding? The commercial establishes the coffee company as a cultural icon, old-fashioned, and heritage makes it cool enough for coffee snobs to feel no shame in putting a tub of Folgers in your grocery cart. The company pays homage to its New Orleans roots, where the beans are roasted, giving the brand heritage, artisanal cache. I need to look into this more…).

After I finished up my grits and morning coffee, I got to wondering how this phrase, “high on the hog,” came to be. In searching for the origins of the phrase, I came across a NY Times article from 1920:

CHICAGO, March —Southern laborers who are “eating too high up on the hog” (pork chops and ham) and American housewives who “eat too far back on the beef” (porterhouse and round steak) are to blame for the continued high cost of living, the American Institute of Meat Packers announced today.

Hmmm…why didn’t “Your eatin’ too far back on the beef?” enter into Southern vernacular? I think I’ll start using that instead of “living high on the hog.” See what happens.

I also accidentally discovered a Netflix series, “High on the Hog,”, released last year, that is about African-American cooking and how it has vitally shaped American culinary history. In reading reviews of the series and how it came to be, what resonated with me most was this excerpt from the NY Times:

We know that food is an emotional thing for people, but I think it’s something completely different for African Americans because of all the pain we’re holding inside with our history,” he said. “But it wasn’t all sorrow and pain. There was great joy around the table for us as a family.

As much as I love this food and feel an intimate connection to it, this article made me wonder if I really know anything at all about the Southern cooking that I take so much pride in celebrating. I looked at my empty bowl of grits. I love grits, eat them at least twice a week, but I don’t know anything about their origins. What about the collard greens and fat back I love so much? I haven’t watched the series yet but I am going to soon. There was bad blood on the table in old Dixie and we must not forgot how much pain and suffering led to all that good cooking.

Photo by Angela Perez; taken at Capt. Stanley’s, where they serve up some mighty fine Southern cooking

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