Every city has its own special flavor of homegrown hip-hop, whether it’s tag teams of teens hocking tapes in a Walgreens parking lot or local legends blanketing the town with freshly inked flyers for an upcoming house party.
More than most cities, New Orleans has a storied history of these neighborhood rap heroes cresting into the national spotlight. Culinary and drinking references abound in the lyrics of New Orleans-bred rappers—even Lil’ Wayne returns to his edible roots from time to time, growling in a recent guest spot, “Damn where you stumble at? From where they make gumbo at?”
Pound for pound, my favorite South Louisiana food-themed rap song pays tribute to a barroom favorite that often makes the uninitiated squirm: pickled pig lips.
Recorded in 2014 by the rappers VP and BreezyBe, “Pig lips, boudin and chips” is a blend of outlandish sexual innuendo and bar food love letter that could only spring from the mind of someone hankering for both a booty call and a drunk snack.
“Gotta get some pig lips and chips! Pig lips and chips!” The song’s refrain bounces over and over as women in the track’s video pop and lock like pros. “Gotta have some pig lips, early in the morning,” VP spits, overall-clad with oversized, Rick James shades on his face. “Just to get my day started, gotta get my chips up!”
Pickled pig products are big business in a swath of the South that stretches from Cajun country up through the Mississippi Delta, where any roadside bar or gas station that doesn’t have a watery gallon tub of ruby-hued pork products is an anomaly worthy of suspicion. The jars have often collected a fine film of dust on top, tucked away at the end of the bar with a pair of tongs set aside for fishing jowls, lips, feet and tails from their briny tank.
My first lips were brought in to Iggy’s by a patron known as Miss Lula, who was constantly arriving with tubs of various sizes filled with oysters, chicken and other leftover delicacies of dubious origin. On the evening she brought in pig lips, I confidently tried to grab one from the jar and shove it in my mouth, bologna-style. “No, baby, no,” she slapped my hand like a kid reaching in a cookie jar. “Go grab yourself a bag of chips and I’ll show you how to do it.”
First-timers always notice that the jar of pickled pig parts is full of red liquid, which adds to the gruesome appeal, as many assume to be watered-down blood. It’s actually a vinegary brining liquid that’s been, for some reason, tinged with Red Dye #40, a practice that’s been common for decades. The brine’s shade of red is a washed-out, downtrodden one that seems to have seen better days — a kind of poor man’s watercolor. For around a buck a pop, the meat pickle is more often than not served plunked down unceremoniously in a Styrofoam cup, leaking its vinegary trail along the bar. These are not bar snacks for the faint of heart.
The pickled pig’s shade of red also holds a prominent place in my family lore. Just months after meeting my mother, my dad’s mom attempted to “cure” her of vegetarianism by unfurling a spool of pickled ring bologna from one of these jars and waving it under her nose like smelling salts. Not surprisingly, it had the opposite effect. But when I started posting up regularly at the dingy bars where eating pickled pig is par for the course, I quickly discovered that I roundly enjoyed pig parts’ complicated textures and lip-puckering aftertaste, carrying on a family tradition (Hank Williams, Jr. style) that only resides in my father’s gene pool.
While pickled pig feet and tails will do in a pinch, it’s the lips that are the true South Louisiana dive bar delicacy.
I first encountered pickled pig lips during a time I was watching one too many sunrises happen from a New Orleans dive bar called Iggy’s, the kind of place where it seemed completely natural to talk to an aging bartender named Trees about his gout, and where it was incredibly difficult to tell who was the father and who was the son in a set of father-and-son regulars. Even as a true connoisseur of bottom-shelf brown liquor, Iggy’s cheap prices and generous pours eventually burned me out on Evan Williams Green Label.
Pig lips, though? I still can’t pass them up.
My first lips were brought in to Iggy’s by a patron known as Miss Lula, who was constantly arriving with tubs of various sizes filled with oysters, chicken and other leftover delicacies of dubious origin. On the evening she brought in pig lips, I confidently tried to grab one from the jar and shove it in my mouth, bologna-style.
“No, baby, no,” she slapped my hand like a kid reaching in a cookie jar. “Go grab yourself a bag of chips and I’ll show you how to do it.”
Eating pickled pig lips on their own can be an overwhelmingly spongy experience, like chewing through a sea cucumber as it absorbs all the boozy remnants from your mouth. In order to counterbalance this, those in the know grab a bag of potato chips, crush them up and shake the pig lips around in the bag to give them a little bit of extra grease and a (much appreciated) bite.
Some will debate the choice to coat your pig lip in crushed-up Zapp’s versus pulverized Lay’s, a personal decision roughly akin to the difference between choosing to batter a piece of fish in cornmeal or encrust it in panko crumbs. But for purists, Louisiana favorite Zapp’s (Crawtators, if possible) are hands down the only answer.
Even with this charming ritual, pickle pig lips remain the cilantro and Kanye West of bar snacks: You either take to them and develop a hankering, or can only dream of spitting them out on command. Fortunately, I immediately appreciated how the slightly gristly, porous texture of the lips mops up liquor in just the right way, serving as a palate cleanser and wiping the slate clean between a shot of Jack and a few more Bud Lights. Once you get past the (admittedly challenging) smell, the snack functions as a stomach settler, particularly with a salty chip coat—just tart enough to give any digestif a run for its money. Sure, it’s not pretty. But it’s the perfect, weighty sidekick to a long night of drinking.
Much like my grandmother, I spent a long time trying to coax the uninitiated into at least giving pickled pig a chew.
“Just one little bite!” I’d cry, thinking of Miss Lula’s patience with my naiveté, hoping to make someone a freshly converted student of the pork pickle. Today, though, I’m greedy enough to shrug when someone turns up their nose at such an extraordinarily food to pair with a night of drinking—more for me now, after all. Like VP and BreezyBe, there’s nothing I want more after a long night than pig lips and chips.
So, if you don’t mind, pass that jar and a bag of Zapp’s my way. I’ll show you how it’s done.