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Mar 3, 2011 08:34 AM

Let's not call roast pork shoulder pernil

I want to set something straight. Pernil, a dish popular in the Caribbean countries from Cuba to Venezuela as well as in Brazil, is made with fresh ham. The name of the dish shares a root with the word for leg in Spanish and Portuguese, and I believe it's the Catalan name for ham.

Why is this important? It seems that all recipes to be found in English for pernil use pork shoulder, a very different cut of meat. True pernil recipes call for the fresh center or shank portions of the pig's hind legs, which is a much leaner cut that requires roasting at a pretty high temperature until it's golden and just cooked through -- the same way you'd roast a lamb gigot. The seasonings vary, but oregano and garlic feature prominently in general. In my family, we use orange juice to make a pan jus.

Do I have anything against pork shoulder pernil? Not really, it's only that calling it pernil makes me cringe a little. The truth is that roasting a heavily seasoned piece of pork shoulder at 350F for 3 hours is one of the best ways to produce juicy, flavorful pork that will stay together while slicing. I might even like it better than true pernil.

Pork shoulder pernil was probably popularized by Puerto Ricans in the United States. I must admit that, like most Puerto Rican bastardizations of the Spanish language, this one is quite luscious.

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  1. bacallado the point regarding the ingredient I have raised to friends before too and in Brazil you cannot use the front shoulder (paleta) in something and call it pernil (in particular there are regulations regarding processed meats, sausage, etc to this respect). However, its less a case of bastardization than substitution of a less available ingredient with one more available and cheaper -- pork picnics are much more available in the US than fresh hams, because of the demand for fresh hams to make cured/cooked/smoked hams and most butchers work from sub-primals provided by the big packers. In fact in many CSAs or with farms where you buy part of a pig will give you some quantity of prepared ham, but not offer the fresh ham, same for bacon. So Brazilians, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Mexicans and many others use the picnic -- and call it pernil in the US (and many would roast pernil to well done, although not in a slow oven). And Gringos like it because they are accustomed to pork butt BBQ, etc. Thus its been adopted as pernil in the US, so its valid to talk about it as such, but its a modification to traditional cooking. Lastly commercial pork is so lean, that in some sense substituting the picnic gives you more fat and a stronger pork taste (for better or worse) and traditionally raised pork would have had more fat.

    1 Reply
    1. re: itaunas

      Thanks, itaunas. I agree with you, it's a matter of ingredient availability. Fresh ham is in short supply even in Spain. As I said, I love pernil made with pork shoulder, but given that it's only become popular among Gringos recently, can't we just call it pork shoulder? I might be a bit of a stickler :) .

    2. Even if the name can be traced back to the rear leg, what's wrong shifting the focus to the preparation method, as opposed to the cut?

      8 Replies
      1. re: paulj

        I think calling pork shoulder pernil is like calling two different steaks the same because they're both grilled. Furthermore, the preparation method is not the same, only the seasonings. If you don't associate anything to the word "pernil", it must not be a big deal, but to me as a Spanish speaker, it makes no sense.

        Itaunas brings up a good point about the amount of fat in the front legs, and how it might make the picnic cut closer to a traditionally raised pernil. Still, I can't get over the name.

        1. re: bacallado

          Spanish speaker from where? Food words have a way of varying from country to country. Pernil in Ecuador is different from the Puerto Rican version.

          I'm finding claims that in Spain, Barcelona (Catalan) it is specifically the cured ham (jamon serano), not just the leg.

          Chow posters aren't the people to dictate how a word like this is used. At best we can observe how others use it, and use it in a way that fits the context.

          1. re: paulj

            I'm not trying to dictate, but I think I'm entitled to an opinion. Even though food words vary from place to place, denying the original meaning of a word is sheer relativism. More so when the word has a close cognate that means leg. I wrote the post to add to the pool of information online on pernil, after a search in english yielded nothing but references to roasted pork shoulder.

            1. re: bacallado

              I thought your original posting which raised the concern, detailed differences in preparation, was good. If you get too much into just the wording of it, I expect the mods may move this to "not about food" which would be a shame. I would agree with your suggestion for "pernil style pork picnic" but to get people to pick up the name thing, you might have more luck registering and hitting twitter. :-)

              The Internet is particularly rife with mistakes translating names of meat cuts. Even "official" resources for meat exporters have mistakes. But this is mostly an issue of X-american (pr-american, brazilian-american) communities substituting the ingredient and English language editors adopting the americanized latino recipe. Which is better than Gourmet and Saveur publishing recipes for ethnic food which have nothing to do with the dish -- such as 'authentic' feijoada made with pork loin and olive oil.

              Incidentally in ethnic restaurants I tend to see the opposite problem with translation than the recipes on the internet -- they translate it as "fresh ham" and then serve picnic. :-(

              1. re: bacallado

                Current usage is what determines the mean of words. Etymology is interesting, and gives good clues, but does not dictate meaning. In fact how words change over time, both in pronunciation and usage, is part of etymology.

                English 'ham' has shifted in meaning. Now it usually means cured thigh meat - so much so that we have to use 'fresh ham' to refer to the uncured. But in Old English it means the hollow at the back of the knee, a meaning which is still preserved in 'hamstring'

                "The word ham originally referred to the fat and muscle behind the knee. String refers to tendons, and thus, the hamstrings are the string-like tendons felt on either side of the back of the knee. Another commonly accepted origin is that legs of ham used to be hung by a hook through the space between the thighbone and the tendons behind the knee. Ham/pork used to be more common in England than beef and lamb." wiki article on hamstring.

                1. re: bacallado

                  "Pierna" does not mean "leg". It means "haunch, hip". That's what it meant in Latin, anyway, and denying the original meaning of a word is sheer relativism.

                  itaunas: How is it any better to misuse the word "picnic" in this way? If you mean "shoulder", say "shoulder", you relativist. ;-)

                  1. re: DeppityDawg

                    But I don't mean pork shoulder at all which would consist of the boston butt (blade) and picnic. Pork picnic is a common retail abbreviation for a skin on, bone-in, cut from the lower part of the pork shoulder without providing too many specifics thats all.

                    As I stated from the start, I think its reasonable to consider 'pernil' as a recipe which uses 'pork shoulder.' However, if you took any front leg pork roast and tried to serve it as 'pernil' in Brazil, you might get the plate sent back and if it was done in a catering situation there would be a complaint and possible ground for consumer action. Pernil has a very specific meaning, which is written into legislation. But in America, Brazilian restaurants offer "pernil -- fresh ham" for catering at holidays and its a pork picnic, so is incorrect in both Portuguese and English translated from the Portuguese. So bacallado has a point and has provided some good education, but there is a base of usage in the US which is not going to be changed by one chowhound post.

              2. re: bacallado

                It is your great fortune to be a Spanish speaker. You are also fortunate to be an English speaker. These are two distinct languages. That's all you need to remember to get over "queso", "tamale", "Amarillo", "habañero", etc. I know it hurts. You are not alone. One day you will stop cringing. It gets better.

                In the meantime, when I'm around you I promise never to say "pernil" but instead "faux-nil" or "perNOT".

            2. how about pernil borinqueño?

              3 Replies
              1. re: Karl S

                This is the second time in a few days that broqueño or boricua has come up in chowhound threads and I bit my tongue before, but the term 'boricua' in Puerto Rico is not universally embraced (I won't say divisive, but some Puerto Ricans in P.R. don't like it). In your use Puerto Rican American (Nuyorican) pork shoulder it does actually make some sense, but I cringe in general with gratuitous use of such terms by (educated) English language speakers. I think its better to translate it into English like the pernil-style picnic idea or something else.

                1. re: itaunas

                  My apologies. My Puerto Rican friends were rather proud to use the term, preferring it to the more formal usage.

                  1. re: Karl S

                    I tend to agree with itaunas. The fact that an ethnic community in the US substitutes an ingredient and keeps the name of the dish is not the end of the world. What's terrible is when the name gets adopted by English-language publishers who make their own modifications, for better or worse, rendering the moniker completely meaningless.

                    Feijoada with pork loin and olive oil is a good example. I wouldn't be surprised to see "arepas con pernil" used to describe a corn bread topped with chunks of fatty pork shoulder.

                    Speaking of arepas, did anyone see Mark Bittman's recipe in the New York Times? Atrocious!

              2. I agree with Bacallado. Pork leg, fresh ham, pernil, is not the same as pork shoulder. It's a different cut. Though I'm not a purist, I would like to see recipes at least acknowledge the substitution they are making, whatever the reason. Getting the right cut, requires ordering in advance. Simple as that. Where I live, farmer's markets and butchers are a great source. It just means planning ahead.

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