My love affair with John Steinbeck started in 6th grade when my Language Arts teacher, Mrs Alexis, gave me a copy of Steinbeck’s The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights. At the time I was a shamelessly romantic eleven year old (or as romantic as you could be at that age) and I fell head over heels for King Arthur, Merlin, Lancelot, and John Steinbeck.
And then, in the summer after my freshman year of college, I read East of Eden. That’s the summer my heart exploded.
The story follows the arc of two families – The Trasks and the Hamiltons – diving down deep into the souls of each family member. It digs up all that is good and all that is evil in them, exposing their darkest demons and their purest decency. The novel parallels portions of the book of Genesis, specifically the story of Cain and Abel, and revolves around the biblical concept of free will. But look at me, going on and on. If you haven't read this book, I'd hate to give away too much. I envy your fresh eyes. And if you have read this book, it's lessons are more than likely already imprinted on your soul!
In order to honor this literary titan, I decided to find out what his favorite dish was. My research led me to a dish called Pork Posole. Posole comes from the Nahuatl word pozolli (which I'll admit looks more Italian than Aztec) meaning "hominy". Hominy is created when you rehydrate dried corn kernels in an alkaline solution, resulting in sort of a soft, water-logged corn kernel. The consistency ends up being a similar texture to that of a very tiny, very fluffy baked potato. Strange, but delicious. Especially for a dish like this.
Pork Posole, in the end, is a stew. And what would be more appropriate for the man capable of combining so much into one story than a hearty, balanced, flavorful stew? It was the one-pot meal he would make for himself when home alone or out on the road, traveling between towns, or around an open fire. Gah! Steinbeck, could you BE any cooler?!
As I was cooking, I kept envisioning Steinbeck in my kitchen; I could feel his presence. Maybe it was the photo I have of him perched on the shelf above my stove (next to my mama), or maybe there was something about cooking this meal that Steinbeck made for himself so many times that conjured his presence. As I cut the pork shoulder, as I drained the cans of posole, as I threw an abundance of spices into the big cast iron pot, Steinbeck was there beside me. And he was pleased with my efforts.
Later that night I took the stew upstair to my flatmate (I’m not British, but that’s the best way to describe our situation) and we slurped and chomped away at the delicious meal. After we finished I took the leftovers back to my apartment to seal up for lunch the following day.
As I held the heavy cast iron pot in one hand and spooned the remaining stew into a tupperware with my other hand, I widened my stance and bit my lip, trying to hold up the impossibly heavy pot for just a moment longer ... one more scoop ...
CRASH! Posole on my sweater, posole on my pants, and posole pooling all over my kitchen floor.
Steinbeck! My dear, sweet, Steinbeck Pork Posole. All the leftovers. All of them. Just gone.
But I was reminded – thanks entirely to the comforting phone call from my big sister – that a Steinbeck meal really shouldn’t end in any other way. “Isn’t that what makes his characters great?” she asked. “Isn’t it the loss and failure and imperfection in his characters that makes you love them all the more?”
She’s right, I thought as I looked at my posole-washed floors. Just as the goodness of his characters shined brightest set against their own darkness, the loss of the stew made the experience all the more special. And despite my lack of leftovers, I did manage to share my posole with others. And, thankfully, snap the requisite photos for the recipe below.
Oh, Steinbeck. How incredibly wonderful you are.
2 lbs pork shoulder, 2 inch pieces
1 onion, diced
mix of spices like cayenne pepper, chili powder, cumin, cardamon, ancho chili powder
1 green pepper, diced
1 yellow pepper, diced
1 dried gaujillo pepper (this is a sweet, mildly heated pepper. swap out for your pepper of choice.)
2 cans posole/hominy, drained
1 can diced tomatoes, with juice
2 c chicken broth
limes & cilantro for garnish
In a large skillet, heat 2 circles of olive oil over med-hi heat. Add diced onions and cook until translucent. While the onions are cooking, be sure your pork has been trimmed down of its fat and bone.
Add pork to pan and cook all sides until well browned, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle in your mixture of spices. Vary the amount of spices you use depending on how much heat and flavor you desire… or, depending on what spices you have handy.
Transfer the pork and onion mixture to a big, heavy pot and add your peppers, posole, and tomatoes. Then add a few cranks of s+p and the chicken broth.
Mix the pot together and bring to a rolling boil for 5 minutes. The consistency should be similar to stew, but if you desire a more soupy dish, add a bit more broth. Turn heat down to low. Let simmer for about an hour, stirring occasionally.
Serve with a wedge of lime and a dusting of chopped cilantro.
Pictured in chinaware bowl provided/for sale through Refabed Chic.