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The Skinny on Pork Rinds

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“Buffalo” Jim Reeves from New York placed first, John Palmgren out of Peoria second, and Steve Stone, Toledo, Ohio took third with winning weights, respectively, of 11.32 oz., 10.01 oz., and 8.07 oz. That’s how many pork rinds each man pounded down in eight minutes flat in the “2009 Major League Eaters Pork Rind Eating Contest” at the annual “Pork Rind Heritage Festival” in Harrod, Ohio.

In tenth place, chowing down 4.79 oz, was Mark “The Hambone” Singleton of Dallas, Texas. Respectable, but sobering when you consider that Singleton is Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Rudolph Foods, the world’s largest manufacturer of pork rinds.

“I entered to win. I don’t even understand the concept of ‘losing good,’” Singleton laments. “Folks thought I’d get up there and eat like a dilettante. Wrong. My wife was looking at me in shock,” he says. “But the last two minutes I was like, ‘Oh, man, just get me off the stage.’ I was that full.”

It’s the product, explains Singleton. Pork rinds have a very high satiety factor meaning that just a little makes you feel full. It’s a big part of their appeal, but a challenge in an eating contest. By comparison, hot dog eating champion Joey Chestnut downed 68 dogs in ten minutes. So crunching through nearly five ounces of pork rinds in eight minutes really is an accomplishment.

Americans, particularly those in the Southeast, Southwest, and urban Midwest love their pork rinds. We’re just one of many cultures that do. They’re “chicharrones” in Spain and Mexico, and “pork scratchings” in the United Kingdom. The Dutch call them “knabbelspek” (“nibbling bacon”) and "flæskesvær" are savored in Denmark. ("Flæsk" means pork, "svær" means rind). While the snack’s ubiquity evidences pork’s cross-cultural appeal, it’s also a tribute to the utility and versatility of the delicious animal itself.

“Nothing is wasted on a pig but the squeal,” says Singleton with a laugh.

Rudolph Foods processes over 100 million pounds of pork rinds every year. The average bag weighs about two ounces. That’s a lot of snacking.

John and Mary Rudolph started their company in Lima, Ohio in 1955 but almost went under just two years in. Pork rinds had been made with the skin that comes from smoked pork belly, i.e. bacon. Smoking reduced the skin’s moisture level and gave it great flavor. But in 1957 bacon manufacturers decided to remove the skin before smoking to reduce costs - why smoke all that extra poundage? It was a boon for smokers, but a disaster for fledgling Rudolph Foods.

“You can’t just fry the raw skin because the moisture content is too high and it just won’t taste right,” explains Singleton. It cooks too fast. When that happens “the cell structure explodes,” the skin becomes tough and “the pork rinds get covered in an oily, greasy coating.” By keeping the cell structure intact you get a clean taste and a light and airy product. The Rudolphs needed to find a way to do just that and to replace the lost flavor.

Using her home economics degree, Mary developed a way to smoke and gently dry the rinds. She experimented with temperature, cooking times and equipment, and created a secret curing recipe - as zealously guarded as Colonel Sanders’ and Mrs. Fields’ - making limp skin crunchy and fluffy, something that you’d actually want to eat. John turned Mary’s kitchen-sized concept into a commercial enterprise and put Rudolph Foods on the map.

Rudolph Foods did so well that Beatrice Foods, one of the nation’s largest food processors at the time, bought it in 1966. In 1987 the Rudolphs bought the company back, reconstituting the family business. Their son Jimmy is Chairman and CEO, and their other son Rich, is President. John, now 85, still comes to the office and Mary puts out an on-line pork rind newsletter.

Their timing couldn’t have been better. In 1988 George H. W. Bush made pork rinds the official POTUS snack, and in 1989 Ohio Governor Richard F. Celeste declared Lima, Ohio the “Pork Rind Capital of The World.” The 90s Atkins craze boosted pork rind consumption and today, “Larry the Cable Guy” and Homer Simpson are bona fide pork rind fans, too. D’oh!

Their appeal is at once urban and rural, ethnic and all-American. Rudolph tailors their product to reflect customer preferences. Their huge Hispanic base in Texas and the Southwest favors Rudolph’s original flavor. Salt and Vinegar is big in the Mid-Atlantic States, and Sweet Barbecue flies off the shelves in the Upper Midwest. Southerners prefer spicy cracklins.

And while pork rind snacks play an unexpected role in all types of recipes - Pork Rind French Toast, Pork Rind pizza crust and Pork Rind pancakes - raw pork rind has always been an epicurean essential in hearty dishes like “cassoulet,” the classic French meat and bean dish. Savory foods like New England Clam chowder and baked beans would not be quite as sublime without it, either.

Singleton loves being a pork rind salesman and credits his success to his wife. “I’m married to a patient woman with poor eyesight, thank God. That my job involves flying all over the country selling pork rinds gives my wife something to brag about to her girlfriends. It doesn’t get much better than that,” he says laughing.

And she’s fine about all his travel. “She figures there’s not a whole lot of women gonna throw themselves at a pork rind salesman. Not a lot of pork rind groupies out there. She’s right.”

No groupies, maybe, but Singleton feels that those who secretly crave pork rinds “would just as soon kiss a pig as eat a pork rind in public,” so he’s mulling an “Are You An Undercover Pork Rind Lover?” campaign. “‘Cheese Doodles’ don’t get the same treatment,” he says ruefully. He remains optimistic that one day pork rinds will assume their rightful, less furtive, place in the snack food pantheon.

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