Atlantic Monthly

Knuckle of Pork, German Delight

Originally appeared at The Atlantic‘s Food channel.

When I was a butcher — a student job I held for less than a year in California — the cut of meat that most thrilled my knife was beef knuckle. To cut the knuckle from a quarter of cow hanging from a meat hook, you start by finding the kneecap at the top and then hacking it loose from its topmost sinews. Thus unmoored, the kneecap provides a convenient handle on which to tug down as you separate the knuckle from the rest of the leg. The knuckle falls away from the bone in a very natural way, perhaps because gravity is on your side: with a knife in your dominant hand and the kneecap in your other, you let the blade tickle the leg. The knuckle sags away, more eager than most cuts of meat to be tied up and packaged.

The pork knuckle, though, presents none of these pleasures to the butcher–nor, for that matter, to most diners. It is smaller, and is cut away intact and bone-in. Unlike beef knuckle, which is generally cut up for roasts or steaks, pork knuckle serves just one person, and at the table requires much picking around bones and fat. My local specialty butcher in Washington says that no one has asked for a pork knuckle in a year. Even good butcher shops need to special-order pork knuckle. When they do, they expect that their customers will use it for ethnic stews–generally Asian, such as certain braised pork dishes in China, or pata (“paw”), a Philippine delicacy.

To most American consumers, even the name “pork knuckle” is uninviting, summoning the image and texture of knobby, stringy joints. It is one of the few English phrases that sounds better in German — Schweinshaxe.

Pork knuckle tastes better in German, too. In Bavaria earlier this month, I visited nearly a dozen breweries, most of which serve pork knuckle, boiled and then baked, with pride. To call it a specialty is perhaps to flatter their menu, which typically offers nothing but pork knuckle, sausages, and platters of cheese and meat. Pork knuckle is not a delicate cut: it is a fatty football of meat and tendon, and its sawed-off protruding leg bone gives it a look of Teutonic barbarity, appropriate for consumption in a restaurant lit by torches and staffed by waiters smeared with woad. But in the context of Bavarian breweries, the pork knuckle’s indelicacy is perfect, because beers are brewed for maximum flavor, unfiltered and unpasteurized, so that each sip is a meal on the tongue. Any flavor more dainty than a chunk of sizzling pork, with a pad of browned fat and skin, would be lost in the rich flow of beer.

By the first evening, the word “Schweinshaxe” had, to my ear, the same effect as Pavlov’s bell. I ordered a pork knuckle from Mahr’s Brewery, at over 400-years-old, one of Bamberg’s more established breweries. The pork knuckle came about ten minutes later, laid out on a bed of sauerkraut and accompanied by a potato dumpling bigger than my fist. The fat-pad was dark–the color of the hardwood paneling of the dining room–and both crisp and chewy. A good knuckle, cooked Bavarian-style, has its fat browned just enough to be too tough for a knife to cut. At Mahr’s, I scraped with my utensils at the moist pork near the bone, then picked up the fat and ate it with my fingers, gnawing off sections of cracklings with my teeth. Tangy mouthfuls of sauerkraut cut the grease.

Will pork knuckle start appearing on American plates? Butchers famously brag about their ability to use every part of the pig (“snout to tail, everything but the squeal,” in the too-precise slogan). But somehow I doubt a dish as unapologetically fatty, and as anatomically identifiable, will find eager consumers here. Butchers and chefs, please prove me wrong. And someone, please make me a good ungespundet lager while you’re at it.


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