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Why Are There Cuts of Pork Called Boston Butt?

Why Are There Cuts of Pork Called Boston Butt?

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There are so many different cuts of pork out there that it can require a minor education to properly understand it all. Each cut has its own delicious flavor and texture to it, resulting in specific cooking situations where you would use each one.

Much as with beef cuts, there are different areas of the pig that are cut in specific ways and have names attached to them to make them easier to identify.

Being familiar with the different names and cuts can not only make it easier to identify what you want but can give you a better education as to the flavor profile that each of the cuts has to offer.

There is one cut of pork in particular that has garnered some attention throughout the years: the Boston butt. And with a name like that, of course it would be one of those recognizable cuts that people refer to on a regular basis.

But where did the name come from? How and why is it called a Boston butt? And while it may sound as if it has everything to do with the backside of a pig, there’s more to the name than you may have realized.

Also Known as a Blade Roast

Generally speaking, you may be able to buy an entire pork shoulder depending on the grocery store that you frequent. More commonly, however, you will find that grocery stores offer that shoulder already cut into two different pieces.

The upper part of that pork shoulder is the aforementioned Boston butt, also called a blade roast depending on who you talk to. The Boston butt comes from behind the pig’s neck and actually has a small piece of the shoulder blade in it (hence “blade roast”).

The lower part of the shoulder is known as the picnic or the arm roast. This piece is the rest of the leg all the way down to the hock.

As with most other cuts of meat, there are multiple names attached to it. This can depend on the region where that cut is being used.

Regional slang can vary from place to place and lead to some confusion when it is referred to by multiple names.

But that doesn’t really clarify much, does it? We know what part of the pig comprises the Boston butt but not where that name comes from. So where does the name come from?

The Origins of the Boston Butt

There are some who believe that the Boston butt name comes from the way that it was shipped.

These shipping practices date all the way back to the colonial days where butchers from New England would take the lesser-prized cuts of pork. This became something that they were easily identified for.

After taking those cuts that others didn’t want, they would pack them into barrels and ship them to other cities and butchers. The barrels themselves were known as butts and because the cut of shoulder became known as a specialty of the New England region, it began to be referred to as the Boston butt.

If that seems like too simple of an explanation, you might be right. There are some who are skeptical about this potential origin story.

Despite being repeated by major, reputable publications, there are issues with the story itself. It takes a little bit of digging to find some of the facts around the birth of this cut but the findings will reveal that barrels had nothing to do with the naming of this cut of pork.

For one, there are historical inaccuracies regarding the naming of this particular cut of pork. For instance, it wasn’t New England that was at the center of the pork trade during the 18th century; it was North Carolina and Virginia.

Eventually, Cincinnati and Chicago would take over that title around mid-century. Not only that, but with a little bit of research, you will not find a printed use of the Boston butt term before the Civil War. The term actually originated during the latter part of the 19th century.

During this time, the railroad industry was completely transforming the way that meat packing operated. Trains essentially took meat packing from being a regional operation and turned it into a national industry.

Because of this, butchers from different parts of the country would have different ways of carving up their cows and pigs while using their state or city name for the different cuts. This is where things such as St. Louis-style ribs or New York Strip steaks come from, in case you were wondering.

In similar style, pork shoulders had cuts that were specific to their geographic origination. This included Boston shoulders, New York shoulders, skinned hams, California hams, and so on.

Getting closer to the reason for the name, the New York shoulders actually had a shank that was trimmed close and smooth, cut off just above the knee, and “square at the butt.”

That California ham was not ham, either. It was a pork shoulder that had a well-rounded butt, trimmed as close to a ham shape as possible. This is also where the picnic term derived from that is now the standard name for the lower part of the shoulder of the pig.

All About the Cut, Not About the Shipping

So, despite the popular idea that the “Boston butt” name comes from the way it was shipped, that isn’t the case. The name suggests that it is a Boston-style cut of pork instead.

Butt was actually something of a generic term for something that is the “thicker or large end of part of something.” After all, there is the butt of a rifle and cigarette or cigar butts. In this case, it is referring to the pork shoulder. It really is that simple.

And of course, Boston wasn’t the only one with a butt named after them. The Milwaukee style of butt is actually quite similar to the Boston cut with the rib and neckbone left on.

There are even mentions of a New Orleans cut, too, even though that never became quite as popular as the aforementioned Boston butt.

So the next time that a Boston butt is served in your home, you can have a cool historical story to share about the name. No, it has nothing to do with the way that it was shipped during the early colonial days but it does have those Boston origins that the name implies.

Every time that you cut into a Boston butt, you can be reminded of those early days of America and how naming practices were implemented.

And the next time that you hear of a cut of meat that has a city or state name attached to it, you will understand how that name came to be. Understanding where your food comes from can give it a little bit of historical context.

Plus, you can show off your knowledge of the various cuts of meat out there, wowing friends, family, and guests with the origin stories of some of the most famous cuts of meat. That’s a neat little parlor trick that you can break out whenever a new guest comes for dinner.


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