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Eatymology: Tom Thumb

Eatymology: Tom Thumb
Tom Thumb | Photo by Rex Miller

In Eastern North Carolina, pork is king. Most of us are familiar with the usual suspects. There’s country ham, fresh sausage loaded with sage, air-dried or smoked country links tucked into biscuits and simmered among greens in potlikker. But one stands out as an oddity: tom thumb.

A cured, sausage-stuffed pork appendix, tom thumb is among those products so revealing of a landscape they double as reference.

Enter chef Vivian Howard, a native of Kinston, North Carolina, and star of the PBS series A Chef ’s Life. Until about forty years ago, putting up meat for winter was a vital annual ritual in the rural South, Howard says.

During the first cold snap, families gathered for hog killings, during which they churned out cured hams, pickled feet, and plenty of sausage. Some of that sausage was tucked into the cleaned appendix, which was hung in a smokehouse to shrink and develop flavor as it lost some one-third of its moisture content.

As a hog could yield only a single tom thumb, the product was prized and prepared for special occasions. It’s often boiled, sliced, then panfried, and served on a platter with cooked greens.

For Howard, tom thumb is more than mere sausage, it’s a cultural relic. “We’ve got very few indigenous charcuterie traditions in our country,” she says. “This is one of them.”

Tom Thumb with Rutabaga Relish

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