Note: I was provided with free samples of Bacon’s Heir Pork Clouds and Shotwell’s Sea Salt Caramels in order to write this post, but I was not otherwise paid or compensated.
Last month, Southern Living announced their first-ever food awards, and I was lucky enough to get to sample two of this year’s winners: Bacon’s Heir Pork Clouds and Shotwell Candy Co.’s original salted caramels. Pork Clouds won the distinction of being one of the “Best Snacks,” while Shotwell’s took top honors in the “Best Sweets” category.
Of course, in a perfect world, I would’ve tried all 24 winners and 22 runners-up that were recognized by Southern Living. In a perfect world, I would have spent a healthy amount of time with my eyes half-closed, dreamily working through slow, methodical bites of each and every one of these delectable artisanal creations handmade throughout the Southeast. In a perfect world, I would be a professional snack taster, brought only the finest bite-sized pieces every day to eat to my heart’s content. But alas, this is not a perfect world, so I got to try two of the winners. I’m not complaining, of course. If the other winning foods are anything nearly as unique and tasty as Pork Clouds and Shotwell’s original salted caramels, then there are 46 fine Southern foods out there that you kind of need to get your hands on immediately.
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Pork Clouds are, in essence, reinvented pork rinds. Bacon’s Heir is based in Atlanta, GA, and the story of how they came to be is relatively simple (according to their website). Basically, a bunch of friends sat around and decided to improve on the chicharron (fried pork rind). Yeah, I could be friends with them.
For anyone growing up in the Deep South, pork rinds were kind of a standard-issue snack. As a kid, I ate them them from glassy cellophane bags and got sick almost immediately after consuming a handful. Still, I’d have no regrets. I’d crunch into rind after rind until my hands were shiny with pork fat. It wasn’t a sexy look, but hey, I ended up okay. The thing I really enjoy about Bacon’s Heir Pork Clouds is that they aren’t as heavy-tasting as regular pork rinds. They’re fried in olive oil and still have that textural, slightly gritty crunch that Southerners know and love, but without the oil slick aftertaste. My favorite in particular was the Malabar black pepper flavor, which had a fragrant spiciness. The least successful of the ones I tried were the rosemary sea salt. While I really love rosemary generally with pork, there was something about the rosemary flavoring that felt almost too floral. Still, I’d readily stick my hand in a bag of Malabar black pepper Pork Clouds just about anytime. (As an aside, they go really well with an ice cold beer. Just sayin’).
Shotwell’s Candy Co.’s original sea salt caramels were a great counterpoint to the salty crunchiness of the Pork Clouds I tried. The Memphis, Tennessee company is founded by a former corporate attorney and father of three, so immediately I liked them. I hadn’t even tried them, and I liked them. I like it when people pursue a passion to the point where their passion becomes their source of livelihood. Once I bit into a Shotwell original salted caramel, though, I was in love. These caramels are gooey without being sticky, sweet without being cloying and have just that right amount of salt to counterbalance the whole treat. They’re soft caramels, softer even than saltwater taffy. I enjoyed mine so much that I felt guilty afterwards. Candy should taste good, but I felt like I needed to confess to someone how good Shotwell’s caramels really are.
I guess, then, I’ve got a new mission: to go forth and try the other winners and runners-up in the Southern Living Food Awards. Maybe that will be like my equivalent of a road trip to visit baseball stadiums around the country. You know, I’ll get out a paper atlas and chart my course to meet all sorts of small batch artisans all over the Eastern seaboard. I’ll pull up, demand some of their award winning loot, stuff it in my mouth and drive away. That’s normal, right?
For more on the Southern Living Food Awards, click here.