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One Man's Meat

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<img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1198779081/gallery_29805_1195_28122.jpg" hspace="5" align="left">by Dave Scantland

I know my father never put up a ham; I doubt that his father did, except maybe in his youth, and Grandpa Cecil moved away to the big city at his first opportunity. But I’m certain that his father -- a farmer in Arkansas, where they know pigs -- did. Like many practiced rituals that once marked a change in the season but are now hailed as artisanal, it would have been an annual autumn assignment. I doubt that great-Grandpa counted the days 'til Christmas in order to make sure he’d have something splendid on the table. He’d have been done by late October, and could stroll to the shed and pick the best one hanging. Besides, tradition, routine and decades of precedent meant that he wasn’t doing anything special. He was just making ham.

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Last year, I lost my job and got a smoke box. Somewhere there’s a list of life’s biggest bummers: the death of a family member, moving across the country, divorce, driving in Atlanta. In the space of four years, I’d checked all the boxes except the one next to “getting laid off,” but there, in late October of 2006, it was: the last black bar rotating to rest in the slot-machine window. In the back of my mind was a niggling voice that told me I’d made it happen; what’s more, I’d induced all the other things too, through neglect, willful self-misdirection, miscalculation of value, plain old procrastination, or some combination of those skills.

Despite that recrimination, and (even more, since I discount self-examination as a matter of constitution) despite the assumptions of family and some friends, the last thing I wanted to do was find another 9-to-5 job. Yes, the bills piled up. No, the severance wouldn’t last past February, even if we went into immediate miser mode. But the idea of showing up every day to wallow in office politics and struggle with inefficiency -- to fight inevitable and wrong battles for silly reasons -- filled me with a despair that most of my peeps couldn’t fathom. So while agreeing to an active search for work, I ignored Monster.com while it fertilized my inbox, and I waited to see what would happen.

Which, for a while, was enough to keep financial ends in near-contact, if not meeting. Life became episodic: an extended pursuit for wages punctuated by the scrum of a freelance project, the pleasure of a friend’s visit or an occasional trip. It felt inevitable, and comfortable: the ineluctable lifestyle for someone who’d always felt rootless, and whose habits reflected -- even reinforced -- that, if not in overt acts, then in quiescent self-subversion. But the cognizance came with an apprehensive edge. At the age of 51, I was either too late in realizing that I was a bum -- because I’d acquired all the accoutrements of the upper-middle class, and the stack of responsibilities to prove it -- or I was too early in deciding I could settle for a life that no longer required ambition or energy, and might obviate occasional excess. In response to this, I grew a beard, and a dear friend suggested that I might be looking for a hobby, since besides disguising a weak chin, that’s what a beard amounts to.

So I turned to my smoker. Like many a food-obsessed person, I hold bacon in reverence, and that was my first project. It seems easy enough on paper: cure a pork belly, let it air out, smoke it and cook it until it reaches 155 F. Simple instructions belie the complexity of the task. First: it’s not that easy to find pork belly at a reasonable price. You have to find out who has it (Hispanic and Asian markets), you have to be able to explain what you want to someone who doesn’t speak English (practice your hand gestures, especially one that spreads your leveled hands outward from diaphragm to collarbone and crotch) -- and is sure that you’re an INS agent (leave your camera at home) -- since it’s usually sliced into thicknesses ranging from three millimeters to two inches. And on the day you’re to pick it up, you must arrive at the store before they decide that you’re not coming and slice it up anyway (5 am is most promising). Second, no recipe will warn you of the anxiety attending a process that consumes almost two weeks. Yes, it’s just two-buck belly, but it’s belly that carries salt: a pinch of nitrate and a box of Diamond Crystal, your sweat if not your tears. Measure the temperature -- or the nitrate -- incorrectly and your bacon might be beyond saving: too tough to eat or too tender to keep. Too much sugar and you overpower the pork; too much salt and all you’ve made is soup seasoning.

When I felt I’d achieved a decent product, I dropped some off at a friend’s restaurant, where they astonished me by putting it on the menu. To my bigger surprise, the restaurant started giving me meat to smoke: sides of salmon, pork belly, brisket; by late July, eight Kobe beef tongues and the hind leg of a Niman Ranch hog had made their way through my box. There’s nothing like your own hands on a big hunk of elite meat (not to mention an expensive piece of equipment) to foment nervous appreciation for the things that wander into your universe. I paraphrase Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben: with great stuff comes great responsibility.

Smoking for hire was a tasty soupcon. But I was finishing the product, and I couldn’t ground myself in the craft if all I did was pick out the species of wood and decide how long the meat would hang over the smoldering bits. Though validated in my new hobby, I also felt a bit used. You can smoke without curing, but you have to hot-smoke unless you’re willing to risk disease or rot, and the results are much like barbecuing -- not that there’s anything wrong with that. I do my share. The long cure and the slow smoke together add up to something more than either can achieve on its own. The results weren’t mine, and wouldn’t be unless I could do the cure, too. It wasn’t only the smoke that engaged me, it was the salt.

With the energy that only the naïve can possess, I drew up plans for a charcuterie kitchen: prep tables, grinder, stuffer, brining fridge, cold box, curing room, a larger smoker. I even located an investor, and began talks with the restaurant, which had the room and had proved the desire. Along with all the other occupations I’ve sampled -- marketeer, writer, designer, musician, cook -- I started wondering how “charcutier” would taste as a late-life supplement.

Then the restaurant closed, its backers disappeared, and the chef left town.

I wasn’t going to be a charcutier. I didn’t have the contacts to make it happen, and I didn’t have time to develop new ones. I went back to hustling for work and trimming my beard.

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Late in the summer of 2007, an instructor at a local cookware store asked if I’d help out with a three-day, hands-on beginner’s class. As I went through the menus -- spaghetti carbonara with shrimps, braised chicken in vinegar sauce, steamed asparagus with Hollandaise, grilled zucchini, roasted short ribs -- it didn’t strike me as a pulpit for the sermon of sodium chloride; it’s certainly not what it was meant to be.

But: salt the pasta water to imbue the starch with flavor (a lesson reinforced by the late addition of macaroni and cheese, thanks to a participant who’d never had any version but the blue-box Kraft Dinner); brine the shrimp to make them sweet; salt the chicken to bring out the proteins that precipitate browning; a pinch of NaCl makes the lemon and butter brighter; salt the squash to relieve it of excess moisture; season the meat early for full flavor and tenderness. I reached for the cellar again and again, and explicated.

We set up an impromptu lab using a cream of asparagus soup that we showed the class how to make: simmered long and low with wine and leeks, then blended and refined through a sieve and finished with cream. Each student got a bowl of soup and a teaspoon of salt. They added a few grains at a time to the mixture, stirring and tasting each time. Brows unfurrowed and eyes lit as the wide gray line between seasoned and salty narrowed and brightened. We didn’t create any great cooks that weekend, but we made them less afraid. Maybe, I thought, that’s where a chore starts to become a craft.

Paying work picked up as the year hurtled towards its end. Busier than I’d ever been when I had a real job, I struggled to cram the holidays between writing contracts and design projects. If that wasn’t enough, on December 12th, someone gave me half of a fresh pork leg from a Berkshire pig pastured and harvested not an hour’s drive from my home.

Yes, no less for great-Grandpa than for me, good meat is an obligation, though his proper and complete use of every scrap would mean, if not survival, at least the difference between a fat winter and a lean one. Most of us don’t think about meat that way any more. You want a ham? Go buy one. If we consider at all, it might lead us to respect for the animal, the farmer, the soil and grass that nurtures them, and the sun that makes it all possible -- as close to a religion as many will ever get. This was one obligation that I didn’t really need -- or even have time for. I could have just salted it well and roasted it for Christmas -- like barbecue, there’s not a thing wrong with a roasted leg of pork.

I heard that voice again -- the one had that accused me of subconscious self-destruction -- repeating the litany. But upon reprise, I caught a different tone, or more likely a year later I was a better listener: a string of afflictions wasn’t luck to be rued; it was a lesson waiting to be learned. I sighed and did the arithmetic: brine for 36 hours per pound, dry for a day, smoke for a day, rest a day, soak a day. Nineteen days, all told, to do something special: make a ham for New Year’s Day.

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Dave Scantland (aka Dave the Cook) is an Atlanta-based writer and graphic designer. He is also director of operations for the eGullet Society for Culinary Arts & Letters.

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Thank you. This is touching me on several levels I can't quite articulate. From a respect the animal point I am recalling my father's episode with a young cow. He was apprenticed as a butcher at age 11 or so in Croatia, worked in Austria during the war where he also learned charcuterie, then in the U.S. till his retirement. After he retired, an Italian immigrant of his generation who worked as a handyman/gardener in the area and hooked up with him trading beekeeping supplies asked him to "dispatch" and butcher a young cow he had raised in the meadows nearby. My father had not done it for years and was not happy, but he respected the loving care the gentleman had bestowed and did his best to honor the experience.

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Oh, to have world enough and time... A year in which to discover the bright possibilities of life, craft and big hunks of important meat.

At what stage is the ham today? Please give us updates on your work in progress.


Margaret McArthur

"Take it easy, but take it."

Studs Terkel

1912-2008

A sensational tennis blog from freakyfrites

margaretmcarthur.com

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Thank you. This is touching me on several levels I can't quite articulate. From a respect the animal point I am recalling my father's episode with a young cow. He was apprenticed as a butcher at age 11 or so in Croatia, worked in Austria during the war where he also learned charcuterie, then in the U.S. till his retirement. After he retired, an Italian immigrant of his generation who worked as a handyman/gardener in the area and hooked up with him trading beekeeping supplies asked him to "dispatch" and butcher a young cow he had raised in the meadows nearby. My father had not done it for years and was not happy, but he respected the loving care the gentleman had bestowed and did his best to honor the experience.

Your father was an honorable man. I'm sure you're proud of him.
. . . .

At what stage is the ham today? Please give us updates on your work in progress.

Here's that bad boy, fit to be tied:

gallery_6393_149_4579.jpg

And here he is, um, tied. He goes in the smoker this afternoon. Just to end the year with one more surprise, we'll be having it New Year's Eve instead of New Year's Day.

gallery_6393_149_35124.jpg

And where do you find enough "chill" for it in Atlanta?

I'm not sure what you mean.
I can taste your words.

What a nice thing to say, especially coming from someone who is a fine writer herself. Thank you.

Dave Scantland
Executive director
dscantland@eGstaff.org
eG Ethics signatory

Eat more chicken skin.

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I followed the technique from Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall's River Cottage Meat Book. I like the book very much, but in the end I've decided that this particular recipe leaves much to be desired. I keep a charcuterie notebook, and it's easier to post a photo of it than type out what I did:

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This makes an oversaturated brine. After half a day, about a half-inch of brine sludge had come out of solution to rest at the bottom of the Cambro. At first I thought that this wasn't really a problem, but it had consequences down the line.

The cooking part of the recipe (referred to at the bottom of my notes) was a boil followed by glazing and roasting. Here's what it looked like post-brine, post-smoke, post-soak, post-boil:

gallery_6393_149_2804.jpg

I had gone out to run some errands while it simmered. Upon return, the aroma smacked me in the face the second I opened the door: ham. It didn't smell, as I'd feared, like bacon, butt or generic smoked pork. It was ham. Well, I couldn't wait. I cut a slice, and sure enough, it was ham inside, too:

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Here's a gratuitous shot of the first slices:

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Since there were only three of us, I cut the butt end off for the day's roasting. Rather than go Hugh Farfel-Whangstuff's route, which involves the classic pineapple and cloves, we mixed up a glaze of Applejack (to continue the apple theme), brown sugar and French's yellow mustard (perhaps the highest and best use of this condiment). Here it is right out of the oven:

gallery_6393_149_33640.jpg

Here's where I start to take issue with Mr. Fearless-Whatshisname. He gives loose cooking instructions: "simmer very gently for 4 to 5 hours," then glaze and "Roast . . . in a moderate oven (350 F) for 1 to 1-1/2 hours." It seemed like a really long time, so I stuck a probe in the ham while it was in the pot. It stalled at 170 F (just like a smoked butt will do) at about three hours. When the temperature started to rise again, I took it out. The butchering and glazing took about a half-hour (you have to let the surface of the ham cool a bit). When I put it in the oven, the center still registered 168 F. Rather than follow the "1 to 1-1/2 hours" directive (it was only half a ham, plus I was now leery of all this heat), I decided to stop the roasting as soon as the temperature started to go up again. This took about 45 minutes, and then the temperature started to rocket.

The combination of boiling then roasting resulted in a dry finished product. Gone was any memory of those first succulent samples. It was far from bad -- I mean, it's ham, make from pork with an excellent provenance -- but it wasn't what it could have been. Luckily, I still have the half that was only boiled, and it's great.

But there's another problem. Look at the color in this photo:

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See the gray-brown area near the center of the meat? That's plain old roast pork -- where the cure, despite twelve days in brine, didn't reach. There are two ways around this, I guess: more time in the brine, or an injection. But I also think that the saturation of the brine meant that curing salt was probably falling out of solution along with everything else. Next time, I'll use the Bertolli method for the cure, and maybe get myself a brine pump. Having said all that, the flavor of the Fawning-Whitsunday cure is great -- not overly apple-ish, but light and fruity -- a good complement to the rich pork. I don't know if all that cooking is a British thing (that's a joke!) or a miscalculation on Fiery-Youknowthedrill's part. As for cooking, next time I think I'll stick it in a very slow (like 170 - 200 F) oven for a long, long time, then glaze with a torch. And I think it could use more smoke. In Professional Charcuterie, Kinsella recommends smoking for roughly 60 hours (his dry-cured ham), or at 130 until a wet-cured ham reaches the same temperature -- a matter of many, many hours, I imagine.


Dave Scantland
Executive director
dscantland@eGstaff.org
eG Ethics signatory

Eat more chicken skin.

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