I grew up in Iowa, in the seventies, but not until I left Iowa, and the 2000s, did I understand why people ate pork chops: my mother was an uninterested and ineffective family cook. She composed excellent meals for company: cherries jubilee, a complicated layered cucumber Jell-O salad ring that called forth entranced “ahhh”s, spicy chicken drumsticks wrapped in biscuit dough. For her family of me, my younger sister, and our father, not so much.
We weren’t especially fussy, and this was before moms became short order cooks whipping up vegan meals for one kid, gluten-free for another. We were meat-and-potatoes people, which brought a boring rotation: meat loaf, hamburgers, baked chicken, hot dogs, steak, sloppy joes, spaghetti and meatballs—and, ugh, pork chops.
Because they were cheap or because this was the only style in the seventies in our top pork-producing state, I don’t know, but the pork chops fed to us for dinner were half-an-inch thick, rimmed with gristle, centered with a jagged bone that seemed purposely cut to expose the creepy graininess of marrow.
Now, I know there are ways to cook a thinner cut of pork so it’s delicious. Back then, my mother knew one way: as I recall, she dumped them on a baking sheet that got shoved into a 350 degree oven for at least an hour. Back then, people feared trichinosis—not that we knew anyone who’d had it—so pork was cooked to white-gray, the texture of shredded mulch. I know these unseasoned, unmarinated chops cooked at least an hour because they were served with baked potatoes, which were always crusty-skinned, the way we liked, and it takes an hour to get potatoes to that consistency. (These I still adore!)
On the plus side: None of us ever got trichinosis. Excising the glutinous rim of fat kept us dexterous with knife skills, as did slicing around the weird bone. However: none of us ever said, “Yay, pork chops for dinner!”
My mother dutifully branched out in her pork chop repertoire, depending on the prevailing trends of the time. For a while, she was keen on the broiler. We enjoyed that dangerous whiff of oily, burnt smoke wafting through the kitchen during the broiler stage. She broiled everything: hamburgers, steak, chicken, fish, and these skinny pork chops which emerged from the oven as hard as bathroom tiles. We weren’t a clean-your-plates family, but we sawed our knives through and ate tiny squares of these broiled pork chops, chewing long and carefully, a quick, “No, thank you,” to the threat of seconds.
I remember a frying pan, slivers of pork dropped into a slick of vegetable oil, the sizzle as the heat caught, a promising sound of “fried,” the same sound (almost) that started French fries and fried bologna, two dishes we loved. Unfortunately, after getting a crust of nut-brown sear on either side, the chops went into the oven, in case trichinosis lurked. Again, the sawing. Again, the quick, “No thanks,” to the horrifying thought of one more flavorless hockey puck.
The only advancement was Shake’N Bake. While Shake’N Bake had been around since 1965, I think the infamous “And I helped” commercials brought this product to our attention. Honestly, Shake’N Bake is no more than a box of highly seasoned crumbs, but also honestly, highly seasoned crumbs can be divine compared to naked, over-cooked meat.
The first time we faced a plate of Shake’N Bake, we were mesmerized by the golden, crackly texture coating the meat. “How’d these pork chops get so thick?” my father asked, leaning back in his chair, suspicious that we were being served a different animal. Instead of hacking away with a steak knife, my butter knife slid right through: “What’s this juice inside?” I wondered, marveling at the glistening glint of what I would later learn was marbled fat. My sister scraped off the crumbs with her fork and gobbled up their salty goodness; she was jolly enough that she even ate her frozen peas. Seconds for everyone. No leftovers. So much praise that my mother’s face flushed a self-conscious pink as she basked—before understanding exactly how awful her pork chops had been. Life took a happy turn as everything—chicken, pork, maybe fish—got served shaked and baked. And just as in the commercial, it did help: it was fun to drop pork chops into a bag of crumbs and shake the bag as fast as maracas. It was fun to follow each step of the recipe in my Betty Crocker’s Boys and Girls Cookbook and end up with “Simple Spaghetti” that looked (almost) exactly like the picture in the book, to give my mother a grocery list of food I was going to cook, to make the food that everyone ate, to pass around the plate for seconds, to see my mother’s stressed-out face ease up a little because she didn’t have to make dinner.
Now, I love to cook. I find it a creative act of love and artfulness, and I wish my mother had been able to see food in that light, though I suppose if she had, I wouldn’t have taught myself to cook at an early age.
Still, as much as I like cooking, I remained uninterested in pork chops…until I married a man who called them his favorite food. The funny thing is that while he prefers thick-cut, boneless pork chops, he is big into broiling them until they achieve a sort of dense dryness that reminds me of brick. OMG, I thought, here we go again, but I dutifully cooked them his way. He was happy. Wasn’t that enough? To come from a lineage of dried-out pork chops and marry into one? At least I introduced him to Penzys pork seasoning.
For a while we settled into an uneasy détente: when I knew I was going to be traveling and he’d be on his own, I’d buy him a couple of slabby pork chops and he’d broil the hell out of them, getting to enjoy them without me sitting across the table, a dour bundle of sighs and flashbacks, retelling the Shake’N Bake story for the millionth time.
But those broiled chops depressed me so deeply that I researched recipes, showing him the page in my Cook’s Illustrated cookbook that called broiling pork “simply a bad idea.” (He laughed.) I looked into trichinosis on Wikipedia, ignoring the gruesome descriptions of larvae reproducing in the small intestine to focus on these statements: “Rates of trichinosis in the United States have decreased from about 400 cases per year in the 1940s to 20 per year in the 2000s. The risk of death from infection is low.” (Again, he laughed.) I excessively praised the gentle rosy insides of every farm-to-table restaurant pork chop he ordered.
I experimented on dozens of pork chops, spinning wildly through techniques that involved frying pans, cast iron skillets, lids and no lids, stovetops and ovens. I begged and threatened (“it’s like you don’t love me, if you won’t love these pork chops I made”). I broke down and bought Shake’N Bake (which wasn’t quite as crunchy and life-changing as I remembered).
Then one Wednesday morning I flipped a page in the Food section of the paper version of The Washington Post and there, finally: I finally, finally found the single recipe that made my husband wave goodbye to desiccated meat, and made me finally, finally love pork chops. “Huh,” he said, jabbing the meat with fork tines. “These weren’t broiled.”
Like desperate cooks everywhere, I said, “Just one bite.” I held my breath as I watched him chew, regretting that I hadn’t sweetened the deal with a bottle of wine.
“Huh,” he said again. “Huh, this is…good.” He sliced off another piece. “This pork chop is really…good.”
I played casual: “Maybe I’ll make it again.” And then it was my “just one bite,” and finally, finally, finally: This is why pigs are not composed entirely of bacon and ham and barbecue. This is why people eat pork chops. This is why we cook, not merely to sustain, but to discover.
Later, I thought maybe I’d make these pork chops for my mother one of these days, but showing off like that really isn’t very midwestern, is it?
(Not My Childhood) Pork Chops with Optional Cream Sauce
~adapted from a Nathalie Dupree recipe in the Washington Post
3-4 boneless pork chops, about 1 inch-thick
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 tablespoon butter
(*Or some Penzeys’ Pork Chop seasoning)
Directions for pork chops:
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Remove any excess fat from the pork chops. Season the meat all over with salt and pepper OR Penzey’s Pork Chop seasoning, to taste.
Heat the oil and butter together in a large, heavy skillet—not non-stick—over medium-high heat. Add the chops; do not crowd them.
Cook on each side for 3-4 minutes until the underneath edges are brown. (This is where my husband comes into the kitchen to yell, “Sear the edges,” so go ahead and use tongs to balance the chops on each of the two lengthwise edges for a quick minute or two, to remove the pink.)
Transfer the skillet to the oven and bake the chops for about 40 minutes (no lid). The recipe says, “Until the internal temperature registers between 150 and 155 on an instant-read thermometer.” I say, you will likely not get trichinosis if this temperature is a little lower: 145 is the new USDA guideline. I think 140 is fine.
Whatever your temperature, remove from the oven and let the chops rest for five minutes before serving. This little rest will give you time to make:
I know I said above that this sauce is optional, but come on! It’s amazing.
1/3 cup white wine or vermouth (I usually use Dolin dry vermouth, the white one, since that’s what we have already open in the fridge)
2/3 to 1 cup heavy cream (I’ve used half and half, but the sauce isn’t as thick; probably whole milk would also work)
Pour your wine/vermouth into the hot, unwasheded pork chop skillet, over medium-high heat.
Boil down for 2-4 minutes.
Add the cream/half and half and stir, mixing well, using a wooden spoon to scrape up any brown bits still clinging to the bottom of the skillet.
Bring to a boil and cook until reduced to a the texture of a thickened sauce, maybe 3-4 minutes, maybe less if you are impatient like I am.
Season with salt & pepper.
This sauce will enhance your pork chop x 1000 and is also delicious on standard midwestern pork chop side dishes such as white potatoes, rice, and green beans. You will be happy you made it!
Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of Silver Girl, a novel released in February 2018 by Unnamed Press. Her collection of unconventionally linked short stories, This Angel on My Chest, won the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature. Short fiction and essays have appeared/are forthcoming in Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Southern Review, Ploughshares, Gettysburg Review, Hudson Review, The Sun, and Arts & Letters. For more information: www.lesliepietrzyk.com