Every year, at the point in late fall when the weather was transitioning from warm to winter, young Brad Wright’s grandfather would dispatch one of the pigs he raised on his farm in Autauga County.
Brad loved watching Big Daddy – as his grandfather, A.C. Gilliland, was called – breaking it down into cuts that would be eaten fresh or preserved for later. But another ritual from those sessions continues to provide inspiration. After rendering the lard, his grandmother, Mertice “Big Mama” Gilliland, would flash-fry the skins until they were airy, crunchy, and deliciously porky.
What Brad and younger brother David didn’t munch, their grandparents sold in the gas station-convenience store they operated at the time at Billingsley Junction where U.S. 82 and County Road 37 intersect.
“It’s something we had around us all the time,” says Brad, now a bridge-design drafter for the state transportation department. “I always enjoyed them.”
Wright carries on the tradition through his side business, Southern Brothers Pork Skins, cooking his rinds pretty much the way Big Mama made them.
But in a nod to modern tastes, his lineup includes five flavors – salt and vinegar, salt and pepper, barbecue, hot barbecue, and Cajun – in addition to the standard version.
Wright says he wants to keep the side gig small and manageable for now. He sets up at least monthly at the Pepper Place farmers market in Birmingham, and takes other vendor slots there when they open. Southern Brothers is currently slated for three Saturdays in September.
Periodically, Wright also sells at special events hosted by Cahaba Brewing in Birmingham’s Avondale area. Look for pop-up dates, times, and locations on Southern Brothers’ Facebook and Instagram pages.
Making pork skins commercially presents unique challenges. For one, they swell considerably in the fryer, so Wright had to find the right cooking vessel for his small-batch production.
He started in a backyard shed with a home turkey fryer, then quickly upgraded to a restaurant-style two-basket fryer. But a chance trip to the Mi Pueblo supermarket in Pelham provided the solution, a large cazo pot like those used at the busy market’s meat counter and in-house restaurant.
Narrower at the bottom and wider at the tip, it provides plenty of space for cooked pork skins when they float to the surface.
Even then, Brad can only add an ounce or two of uncooked skins at a time. “To get the number of bags that I sell at a farmers market, I’m cooking probably 60 separate batches,” he says. “If I threw it all in there, it would just overflow like popcorn.”
What’s sold at the market is prepared only hours earlier. Wright starts frying the prior afternoon and goes well past midnight, pausing to apply seasonings while the batches are still hot. The skins must cool completely before they are bagged.
Regulations concerning the meat-based snack also are complex. Wright was not allowed to operate as a home-based business, so he rents space to cook Southern Brothers skins at the Chef’s Collective, a shared-space commercial kitchen in Hoover.
He also isn’t allowed to completely copy Big Mama’s method. Starting with fresh rinds, as she did, requires a prohibitively expensive special license. His must be processed and dehydrated at a USDA-inspected plant.
“The health department doesn’t want me to just take skins from any old Joe Schmoe, which I wouldn’t do but they don’t know that,” Wright says. “They have to make sure that everybody’s doing the right thing, the way it’s supposed to be done.”
But, like Big Mama, Wright fries his skins in rendered lard. “It’s the best thing to cook in,” he says. “To me if you’re going to do pork skins, or ‘pork rinds’ as some people like to church it up and call it, there’s no better thing to use than pork fat.”
Southern Brothers skins are pale-hued when they emerge from the fryer. They are airy, crunchy, and deliciously porky.
Asked who makes better skins, he or his late grandmother, Brad takes a long pause. He’s mighty proud of Southern Brothers, but…
“Well, I’m never one to disparage my Big Mama,” he judiciously replies. “I would say they’re almost as good.”