The second half of the name—the butt part—has led to all sorts of cutesy names for competition barbecue teams (recent winners at Memphis in May include Nutt’s N Butts and Deez Butts) as well as restaurants (Big Butts, Rubbin’ Butts, Smokin’ Butts.) It offers endless opportunities for titillating restaurant slogans, too, like “No One Can Touch our Butts” and “You Can Smell Our Butts for Miles.”
But a Boston butt has nothing to do with the backside of a pig. That’s where the ham comes from. The butt actually comes from up front.
You can buy a whole pork shoulder at some grocery stores, but more commonly you’ll find the shoulder cut into two pieces. The upper part is our Boston butt (sometimes called “blade roast”), and it comes from right behind the pig’s neck and typically contains a small piece of the shoulder blade. The lower part is called the picnic (a.k.a. “arm roast”) and includes the rest of the leg down to the hock.
So that’s where the meat comes from. What about the name?
If you believe the Internet, it came from shipping practices. Back in the colonial days, an article in Mental Floss explains, New England butchers took “less prized cuts of pork,” packed them into barrels, and shipped them off to other places. “The barrels the pork went into were called butts,” the author explains. “This particular shoulder cut became known around the country as a New England specialty, and hence it became the ‘Boston butt.’”
Wikipedia and the New York Times and any number of other otherwise reputable publications have repeated this story, but common sense alone should make us skeptical. Can you think of any other food item that got its name from the container it was shipped in?
There are plenty of historical problems with this explanation, too. For starters, Virginia and North Carolina, not New England, were the centers of the pork trade in the 18th century, until they were eclipsed by Cincinnati in the 1830s and then by Chicago. I have searched high and low but have been unable to find a single printed use of the term “Boston butt” in the colonial era or even before the Civil War. (Also, Thomas Jefferson did not call John Adams a “Boston butt” during an 1800 presidential debate, contrary to a popular legend I am trying to start.)
The term actually originated in the late 19th century, as railroads were transforming commercial meat packing from a regional to a national industry. Butchers in different parts of the country had slightly different ways of carving up pigs and cows, and different states and cities lent their names to various cuts as national packers were standardizing butchering. Thus we have New York Strip steaks and St. Louis-style ribs—another favorite of Southern barbecue cooks.
The pork shoulder originally had several other geographically-named cuts. In the meatpacking trade, the Kansas City Sun reported in 1892, “careful requirements are formulated for standard sweet pickled hams and shoulders, New York shoulders, Boston shoulders, California hams, skinned hams, pickled bellies, etc.”
According to agriculture journals and meat cutter manuals from the early 20th century, New York shoulders had the shank “cut off above the knee, trimmed close and smooth, and square at the butt.” A “California ham” was not a ham at all but rather a pork shoulder that was “well-rounded at the butt, and trimmed as near to the shape of a ham as possible.” This latter cut was also known as the “picnic” (for reasons I’ve not been able to discover) and that term is now the standard one for the lower part of the pork shoulder.
As the use of “butt” in these ag manuals suggests, the name of the Boston-style cut had nothing to do with shipping containers. Consider the butt of a rifle or a cigar butt. Either crafty Bostonians were putting all sorts of things in barrels and shipping them south or “butt” was simply a generic term for, as Merriam-Webster phrases it, “the large or thicker end part of something”—the pork shoulder, in this case.
Boston didn’t have a monopoly on butts, either. The 1912 Bulletin of the Agricultural Experiment Station of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign observed, “Milwaukee style butts are the same as Boston butts with the neck-bone and rib left on.” My research even turned up a passing mention of a “New Orleans cut” of pork shoulder in 1911, but that one never became popular, which is a shame. You have to figure that a New Orleans shoulder would be at least three times tastier when barbecued than anything coming out of Boston.
So, the next time you fire up the backyard pit, feel free to buy a couple of Boston butts if you prefer. There’s no need to giggle about the name, even while you’re rubbing them down with your secret spice blend.
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All this historical insight has given me a new cut of choice when it comes to barbecued pork. Come on over to my house next weekend if you’re free. I’m going to have a couple of California shoulders smoking on the pit. Doesn’t that sound fancy?