In the business of making traif: My year in a pork rind factory

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Almost two years ago I found myself in need of employment. I scoured the papers in search of openings in my field, which is quality control of food products. One opening caught my eye: "QC manager of a medium-size food processing plant, within commuting distance." Just what I was looking for. The product? Deep-fried pork rinds.

I had never eaten a pork rind, and, to be honest, I wasn't sure exactly what they were. Like many Jews of my generation, I grew up around Old World, keep-kosher grandparents, at whose table you'd be as likely to find pork rinds as fresh vegetables or a garden salad. Even though habits changed over the generations, pork rinds never made it into our culinary canon. Still, a job was a job, and I needed one. I faxed over my resumé and got the call to come in for an interview.

While waiting in the lobby I perused the sales literature. The company, I learned, was a family business — a Jewish family, in fact. The first person I met was the owner's father, a seventysomething accountant whose main function seemed to be entertaining the staff with Catskill-vintage wisecracks. He was the office tummler, the Henny Youngman of the pork rind business. This could turn out to be an interesting gig after all.

The interview went well, and a week later I got the call offering me the job. Could I start right away? It didn't take long to make the decision. I knew there would be a downside, though.

Certainly my mother-in-law wouldn't be kvelling to her friends in the sisterhood about "My son-in-law, the pork rind tester." Still, better this than "That unemployed bum my daughter married." In a way, I was following a family tradition of iconoclasm. My Litvak great-great-grandfather, according to family legend, earned money to bring over his wife and children by peddling pictures of Jesus door-to-door in New York. Hey, you gotta give the people what they want, right? I decided to go for it.

Before long I was immersed in the minutiae of the industry. Pork rinds, I learned, are made from rendered (de-fatted) bits of pig skin and fat. Deep-fried in 400-degree lard, they "puff" like popcorn as the water in the meat turns to steam. Sales of the product had gone through the roof in recent years, due in part to the popularity of Dr. Atkins' diet — no carbohydrates, plenty of protein and fat — which heartily endorsed rind consumption. Latino immigration also played a part, as did exports to countries such as China and the Philippines, where pork rinds are a delicacy. Spicing up the product with salsa, oil and vinegar, and barbecue flavoring was also goosing sales. The rind business was better than ever, and our factory worked around the clock to meet the demand.

As quality control manager, one of my responsibilities was dealing with the rabbis from the Orthodox Union who inspected our plant. Yes, the pork rind factory was kosher-certified. Not the rinds themselves, of course, but other products such as popcorn and cheese puffs that we made in pork-free areas of the factory.

In addition to our regular inspections, we occasionally had visits by rabbis from the O.U. office in New York. Visiting rabbis were always fascinated by the pork rind operation, and I often gave plant tours, featuring my canned spiel ("The puffing of the rinds when immersed in hot oil is truly a marvel of nature…"). During one tour, a smart-aleck line worker asked a rabbi what it would take to get kosher certification for the rinds. Unfazed, the rabbi shot back, "Well, for that, you'll need a higher authority than the Orthodox Union."

After a year on the job, it began to wear on me. The hours were long, the commute tough, and my wife was getting tired of the fried-pig smell that permeated my clothes and hair. I began fishing around, found another job and bid farewell to the pork rind business. I can't say that I really miss the place, but I do have a greater appreciation of the effort and dedication it takes to make a good rind. Still, I have to admit that I don't find the greasy, salty morsels particularly appetizing.

Call it a cultural thing, but I prefer a good shmaltz-laden fried kishke to a pork rind any day.