How Pork Rinds Ditched the ‘Junk Food’ Label

The shift to “wellness” and changing class signifiers have turned fried pork skin into a “healthy” snack that's earned space on Whole Foods shelves.

Jul 20 2021, 6:00pm

After the first President Bush shared his love for pork rinds on the campaign trail in 1988, sales for fried pig skins went “off the scale,” John E. Rudolph, of leading pork rind producer Rudolph Foods Company, told the New York Times in 1989. Though “never quite garnering the following of other, arguably more respectable junk foods,” pork rinds, the paper declared, became “classy crunch.” 

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Pork rinds are a simple food. Rudolph’s Southern Recipe Original Pork Rinds, for example, contain just two ingredients: pork rinds and salt. Shatteringly crisp and airy, pork rinds are made of pig skin that’s boiled, dried, and rendered, then deep-fried until it puffs. Typically, a layer of fat is removed from the skin before frying, though for slightly heftier cracklins, the fat is left on. Salt and seasonings follow, while the puffed skins are still hot. 

Fried pork skin is eaten all over the world. They're chicharrones in Mexico, Spain, and Colombia; scrunchions in Newfoundland; and khaep mu in Thailand. In the United States, pork rinds are a staple of Southern cooking, rooted in a “waste not, want not” philosophy that uses the whole hog. To that end, the AP wrote amid the pork rind surge of 1989 that the “presidential snack had its roots in Southern poverty.” 

While Bush helped pork rinds pick up status, pork rinds also helped Bush push an image, said Mark Johnson, a lecturer at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga who is working on a cultural history of bacon from the colonial period to the present day. Despite the Bushes’ New England upbringing, “they wanted us to think about them as Texans,” Johnson said. “We get country music and pork rinds; they want to seem more approachable.”

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So, how is it that pork rinds—once considered “junk food”—have come to feature in recent years on the discerning shelves of Whole Foods and upscale grocers like LA’s Erewhon? According to Google Trends, interest in pork rinds shot up in 2018 and has remained high ever since, especially in comparison to its interest levels between 2004 and 2014. The night Johnson got my email inquiry about pork rinds, in fact, he said he went to one of Knoxville’s nicer restaurants. “Sure enough, pork rinds were the appetizer,” he said.

Interest in "pork rinds" search term since 2004, according to Google Trends

It wasn’t like a switch had flipped with Bush’s approval. Over the past three decades, the public image of pork rinds has continued to yo-yo from “classy” to “trashy,” “healthy” to “junk,” even as some health-conscious meat-eaters have come to appreciate them as a low-carb, high-protein snack. In 2000, when the Stranger’s Kathleen Wilson wrote about the meat mania surrounding the Atkins diet, she felt shame around pork rinds: “Still, buying crinkling bags of trashy fried pork skin is a mortifying experience,” she wrote. “People with Preparation H in their carts look at me with disdain.” In 2004, the Baltimore Sun’s Gary Dorsey jabbed at them as a “lowly” snack that, before gaining footing among dieters, had found its fans in “stock-car tracks, tobacco fields, steel mills, 7-Elevens, and fish-bait shops.” 

In a 2015 Oxford American piece unpacking the concept of “trash food,” writer Chris Offutt mentioned that pork rinds had started appearing on menus at “white trash”-themed parties, alongside Cheetos and Vienna sausages. “Implicit in the menu is a vicious ridicule of the people who eat such food on a regular basis,” Offut wrote. As such, he argued that the term “trash food” was not about food; “it’s coded language for social class. It’s about poor people and what they can afford to eat.” 

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Emily Contois, a professor of media studies at the University of Tulsa, published the book Diners, Dudes, and Diets: How Gender and Power Collide in Food Media and Culture last November. She also touched briefly on pork rinds in a paper about the Atkins and South Beach diets of the early 2000s—lifestyles, she says, that prompted some people who hadn't eaten pork rinds before to stop by their local convenience store for a bag. As for their arrival at stores like Whole Foods, though—that, Contois said, “is a different jump.” She attributes it to a combination of diet culture, changing class signifiers, and the cultural shift to “wellness,” which puts a new name on familiar ideas about diet and body size. 

In fact, pork rinds fit perfectly into many of the biggest diet trends of the past two decades. In 2012, pointing to their low-carb, decently proteinous composition, Men’s Health classified pork rinds as “junk food that’s good for you.” While pork rinds were vilified in earlier decades, “the nutrients of concern shift from the 90s to the 00s to the 2010s,” Contois said, taking us from the low-fat diets of the 90s, to the acceptance of certain kinds of fats in contemporary diet culture. “Every wave of low-carb dieters discovers them anew,” said Margot Finn, a lecturer at the University of Michigan and author of Discriminating Taste: How Class Anxiety Created the American Food Revolution

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Thus, pork rinds were approved by Atkins, which rose to prominence in the 2000s, then embraced over the past decade by keto, which emphasizes high fat and low carbs. Somewhat surprisingly, given that they're traditionally prepared through frying, they're also a go-to for some adherents of the Paleo diet, which calls back to eating habits of the hunter-gatherer days. Newer pork rind producers emphasize these associations: Epic, 4505 Meats, and Krave, play up the keto and Paleo schools of eating with their offerings. A representative from Bacon’s Heir, which sells pork rinds called “pork clouds,” cites the high-protein, zero-carb, gluten-free, small-ingredient-list factor as a big selling point for customers.

It's hard to tell how much, nutritionally, these pork rinds actually differ from their gas-station cousins, aside from their lifestyle branding. Pointing to its use of “humanely raised, vegetarian-fed” pigs with “no hormones added” and “no antibiotics ever,” “meet better meat,” claims 4505, who did not respond to interview requests. While 4505’s pork rinds are noticeably lower in sodium, their breakdown of carbs, protein, fat, and cholesterol is very similar to the old-school pork rinds from Rudolph’s and Utz, and similar goes for Epic’s. That bolsters Contois’s argument about how our “nutrients of concern” change. Further, in a concept that she calls the “macronutrient imaginary,” Contois says that nutrients like protein, carbohydrates, and omega-3 fatty acids have transcended scientific concepts and gained meaning in culture. In the case of protein, she wrote in 2019, it’s no longer just a nutrient but also something that “embodies consumers’ health concerns and lifestyle aspirations.” 

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Even the current plant-based push has made space for “pork rinds.” Under the guidance of former Beyond Meat product developer Dave Anderson, Outstanding Foods sells Pig Out Pigless Pork Rinds, made of pea protein. Anderson told VICE that these “pork rinds” are enjoyed by both enthusiasts who’ve switched over and people who’ve never had a traditional pork rind. 

While it's hard to live in America and not feel the pressures of diet culture, being “on a diet” is linked to class, and the middle to upper class in particular. So while pork rinds may be an upscale, pseudo-health food now, Finn stresses that the snacks we encounter at upscale grocery stores and restaurants, while essentially the same, are “a totally different product” from what we’ve previously known. “It's not actually that the pork rinds at 7-Eleven have made the jump to being a high-class food,” she said.

The new school of pork rinds signals its priorities and new audiences: In place of the loud, colorful bags from brands like Utz and Rudolph’s, which have clear panels showing you what’s inside, newer pork rinds brands have  “tasteful” and opaque packaging, often with a sketch of an animal that evokes something pastoral and artisanal. “It's telling you, you are a refined and excellent consumer of something that other people call chicharrones,” Finn said. “It's this whole performance of elite consumption.”

Nonetheless, Johnson said that some of the pork rind consumers within this demographic may see the snack as a temporary escape from the dietary rules they otherwise follow. “Bourgeois people have kind of demonstrated an affinity for these other cultures, these oppressed cultures, while still condemning them, still finding a way—even in their love of the culture and their acceptance of it—to portray it as lowbrow or trashy,” he said. This calls to mind a line in Offutt’s 2015 piece: “People who attend these ‘white trash parties’ are cuisinally slumming, temporarily visiting a place they never want to live.”

No matter what draws people to pork rinds, the niche is growing; it’s just bifurcating as it expands—with upscale purveyors finding new names to describe similar concepts. Pork rinds, it turns out, are not one-size-fits-all—even if, at the end of the day, what’s in the bag is just fried pork skin. 

Follow Bettina Makalintal on Twitter.

Tagged:

paleo, pork rinds, diet trends, keto, snack food

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