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Chewing the Fat

From rinds to riches: Susana Herrera's La Popular is big on pork futures.
John Johnston

Even the Whoppers had to go.

My wife and I have decided to eat "better," so to speak, and for the next six weeks that means more protein, more veggies, more complex carbohydrates, no fat and no sugar. So she came home the other day with two Wild Oats grocery sacks overflowing with brown rice, whole grains and a loaf of bread with the texture of dog biscuits.

"Sprouted Grain Bread was inspired by holy scripture," she said, reading from the label. "Ezekiel 4:9. Take unto the wheat and barley and beans and lentils and millet and spelt and put them into one vessel and make a bread."

"This is going to be a long six weeks," I said.

"Yeah."

As she unpacked the bag, we took stock of everything that had to go: Pop Tarts, Sugar Smacks, tortillas with butter and jelly.

"Then what are we supposed to snack on?"

"Something that's high in protein and complex carbs, with no fat or sugar."

"What's high in protein and complex carbs, with no fat or sugar?"

She handed me a Baggie filled with something brown and grainy that might have been oatmeal. Or sawdust.

"I guess this means I should take the box of Whoppers to work?" I asked.

"Yeah," she said. "Take the box of Whoppers to work."


News flash: The popularity of high-protein and low-carbohydrate diets such as the Zone and Atkins have had an unforeseen side effect -- a boost in the sale of pork rinds. From Denver to D.C., deep-fried hog skins are flying off the shelves. Since the snacks have only nine grams of protein per serving and zero carbohydrates, they're ideal for the latest weight-loss fads; Atkins even offers a recipe for pork-rind dip in its Quick and Easy cookbook.

"What it basically comes down to is that they have no sugar and have a very low carbohydrate concentration, and that's two of the things we look for," says Dan O'Brien, a media liaison for the Atkins Center in New York. "It's basically an alternative to potato chips and other high-sugar, high-carbohydrate snacks."

And that's good news to Chicago-based Evans Food Products, one of the nation's largest suppliers of pork-rind pellets, the raw material for rinds. At Evans, sales have recently jumped 20 percent.

"It's phenomenal," says Bill Connor, Evans's vice president of sales. "We get calls from people all over the country asking where to buy them. And when I'm in a metropolitan area like New York City or Washington, D.C., I'll see women out for an afternoon walk in a skirt and tennis shoes, carrying a bag of skins!"

In Denver, stores like Cub Foods have moved pork rinds to the meat department. Mexican-food producers like La Popular can't fry chicharrones fast enough.

"They're selling like crazy," says Jesse Herrera, La Popular's owner.

Not since former president George Bush crunched pork rinds in the White House have sales sizzled like this. CEOs and soccer moms are chewing the fat. Evans executives are so excited, they've added a new label: "Zero Carbohydrates."

"Pork rinds are probably the fastest-growing snack on the salty-snack shelves," Connor says. "We used to be barely a blip on the radar screen, but now we're encroaching on popcorn! It's like I always say: 'There's no party without pork rinds.'"


Ingredients: Pig skins, salt, dextrose, monohydrate, corn flour, sugar, paprika, vinegar powder, garlic flavor, soybean oil, citric acid, acetic acid, soy and corn protein, red dye number 40, caramel color, onion powder, yellow dye number 6, apple essence and artificial flavor. (Contents may vary.)


"They're best just after they shave off the hair."

Steve Linder is talking about pork rinds.

"Pigs have hair on their skin, you know, and you have to singe it and scrape it off. So they're better just after they shave the hair."

Linder is from Nebraska and grew up around all manner of pork products. Now that he's on the Atkins diet, he's pretty much an authority on the subject -- at least, the pork-rind part of the subject.

"Wonderful stuff," he says. "Sales have increased 20 percent because I'm eating them."

Linder is a 55-year-old systems operator with the Public Service Company of Colorado. He stands six feet, seven inches tall. When he started the Atkins diet on the day after Thanksgiving -- "a day earlier would have been a lot harder" -- he tipped the scales at 340. Since then, he's lost forty pounds.

"And I feel great," he says.

The Atkins regimen, which Linder discovered through a friend, goes something like this: Eat as much cheese, eggs, butter, meat and veggies as you want, but cut out white bread, pasta, sweets and fruit. The high concentration of protein melts the fat like lard on a hot griddle. That translates to bacon not just for breakfast, but lunch and dinner, too.

 

"Oh, I can eat a pound of bacon at a time," Linder says. "I don't worry about it at all. I eat it until I'm full."

And pork rinds for dessert.

"Can't get enough of them," he says.

On average, Linder crackles several bags a week. Gourmet chicharrones, available at Cub Foods near the meat department.

"I like dips," he explains. "On the Atkins diet, you're not allowed to have crackers or tortilla chips. And a dip without some type of chip or cracker can be pretty terrible. But the gourmet rinds are great for dipping. They're huge! The ones they sell at Albertsons and King Soopers are pretty flimsy."

He even takes his super skins to work.

"Some people just look at them and turn up their noses," he says. "But I'll eat a whole bag at one sitting."

The way Linder looks at it, he's about halfway to his weight-loss goal of 260 pounds. If pork rinds have anything to do with it, he'll make it in record time.

"They're every bit as satisfying as sex," he says. "And they last longer. If you get the large bag."


Fact: Pork rinds have more protein and less fat than peanuts.

Fact: Pork rinds are good bedtime snacks. They keep you from waking up hungry.

Fact: Pork rinds curb your appetite. Eat one serving twenty minutes before meals.


This is a classic American saga -- from rinds to riches. If this were a movie, a prostitute would meet a millionaire, fall in love, and marry him before the closing credits: Babe III, Pretty Pork Rind. Or, a quarterback from the arena leagues would lead an NFL team to a Super Bowl victory, or a computer geek would develop a software program that makes him the richest man on the planet, or a doctor would sell ten million copies of a diet book based on the premise that pig fat equals Spandex.

But anyone who has ever popped a few skins doesn't need Dr. Atkins to tell him that pork rinds have long held a special place in America's heart -- lodged between the Spam-and-Velveeta sandwich on Wonder bread.

To make a classic pork-rind cheeseball, simply take seven ounces of pork rinds (pulverized), two packages of cream cheese (large size), a chopped tomato, two tablespoons of chopped onion and two tablespoons of chopped garlic. Add tomato, onion and garlic and half the pork rinds to the softened cheese, then roll the paste into a ball. Take the ball and roll that in the remaining pork rinds. Bon appétit!

Or enjoy millennium-minded rinds without the cheese. Granddad's Microwave Real Bacon Rinds, for example, are packed in "metallized bags specially designed for microwave cooking." Each bag contains "70 percent less fat than fried bacon rinds." Not only that, they're "Fun to pop!"

But don't take Granddad's word for it. Check out the fried pork-fat critiques on Bill Hill's "Chicharrone Review and Pork Rind Primer" on the Internet.

"Goddamn, look at all them ingredients!" Hill says of the Evans brand Hot Sauce Flavored Pork Skins. "Points for including salt three separate times in the list, but look at some of that other shit, specifically caramel color and apple essence. Apple essence? Who the fuck would put that in a bag of fried pork rinds? Together with the artificial color, it gives the rinds a flaming hemorrhoidal red color and makes 'em taste like fucking Halloween candy. Which, now that I think about it, ain't a bad idea. Since they ain't spicy enough for a real man to eat, give 'em out to trick-or-treaters. Or any little shits that come near you. Hey, kid, have some pork rinds! Come on! I said, HAVE SOME! HAVE SOME PORK SKINS TILL THEY COME OUTTA YER ASS!"

If that still doesn't sizzle your fat, try some pork-rind porn. At Porkrind.com, a woman in a white negligee reclines on a bed of superimposed hog fat.

"I like naked chicks and I like pork rinds," says one fan. "Therefore, naked chicks and pork rinds must be good."


My older brother ate pork rinds for breakfast.

He was the type of guy who poured Tabasco sauce on a bologna sandwich and drank vinegar as a chaser. He inherited my grandma's cast-iron stomach. On summer nights the two would sit on a vinyl couch crunching rinds and watching reruns of High Chaparral. "You're just like my brothers," Grandma would tell him.

 

Translation: Muy macho.

I wanted a cast-iron stomach, too. During a road trip through New Mexico, I consumed an entire bag of Red Seal chile chips. After several hours and many miles of washboard roads, I decorated the inside of Mom's car with the partially digested contents of the bag. I'm not sure what that has to do with the Atkins diet, but in retrospect, it was a good thing I didn't try pork rinds.


It's chicharrone day at La Popular. Owner Jesse Herrera watches a cook sprinkle pork pellets into a vat of 350-degree canola oil. The rinds boil and hiss, then float to the surface like bloated rectangles of packing foam.

"Basically, that's all there is to it," Herrera says.

He reaches into a cardboard box lined with plastic, pops a fresh rind into his mouth and crunches away like he's eating granite.

"Mmmm," he says.

Crunch, crunch, crunch.

"I like the hard ones the best."

At La Popular, which a few years ago moved around the corner from its original location on 3111 Larimer Street to 2033 Lawrence Street, cooks have been frying chicharrones for thirty years. Although La Popular's main business is making tortillas, tamales and baked goods, pork rinds are a popular part of their diet. And thanks to Atkins, they're getting more popular by the day.

"Oh, yeah," Herrera says. "Absolutely. I couldn't tell you if it's the new fad or the diet, but they are selling. There's no doubt. You can see it. We'll fry them up a couple of times a week, leave them through the weekend, and when we come back, they're gone. It's kind of crazy."

In fact, Herrera is somewhat perplexed by all the activity. Where he comes from, El Paso, in most refrigerators chicharrones are as common as turquoise boxes of Snow Cap lard. They're like beans, chile, enchiladas and tortillas -- something that's always been there.

In the old days, the cooks used to take bacon fat or skin from a freshly butchered pig and boil it inside huge cauldrons. Then they'd spice the bite-sized rinds with red or green chile and serve them up as a side dish, a main course or with hot tortillas. Those were the original chicharrones, Herrera says. Thick. Chewy. Like smoky bits of pork chop.

La Popular's fast-food versions, which are equally tasty, are made from dehydrated pork pellets shipped in from Evans's Chicago warehouse. For his spicy variation, Herrera adds a little chile powder, garlic and cumin.

"But no preservatives," he says. "Absolutely no preservatives. I'm no-preservative sensitive."

Preservatives or not, his customers love them. Even Anglos, who make up 80 percent of his business.

"I thought these things were artery-cloggers," he says. "How did I know they were health food?"

But he does know something about the Atkins diet. His wife, Susana, read all about it but opted against it.

"She thought it was too strict," Herrera says. "She tried the Suzanne Somers diet instead. Me, I eat when I'm hungry. And I used to think, 'What does Suzanne Somers know?' But my wife looks great."

And the chicharrones?

"When you're around them, you're always going to grab them," he says. "I can't speak for her, but they're tempting."


Sugar Smacks, the high-protein way:

Take a twelve-ounce bag of pork rinds (unseasoned), an eight-ounce bottle of hot sauce and a sprig of parsley (optional).

Empty the bag into a large cereal bowl, pour in bottle of hot sauce, stir well.

Serves four to 400, depending.


"Hey, hon. Guess what I brought home?"

"Pork rinds? Yuck."

"No. They're supposed to be good for you."

"Uggghh."

"No, really. This is the only fried snack food recommended by the Atkins diet."

"It's pure fat! And it's got too much salt! And we're not on the Atkins diet!"

"I know, but I talked to the Atkins guys in New York and they said pork rinds have nine grams of protein and zero carbohydrates."

"Lemme see. God. I haven't had these since I was a kid. My dad and my grandparents used to have them with beer."

Crunch, crunch, crunch.

"Ummmm. These are addictive. You should write that. These are addictive."

Crunch, crunch, crunch.

"Maybe you'd better take them to work."

"What do you mean? Like the Whoppers?"

"Yeah. Like the Whoppers. But leave the chile-flavored ones. The plain ones look disgusting."

Crunch, crunch, crunch.

"God."

"What?"

"I need a beer."


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