Charcutepalooza has been trucking along for four months now, and I’ve had an awesome time with four delicious challenges. OK, maybe it’s more accurate to say I’ve had an awesome time with three, and an interesting time with one: I have a great talent for messing up the oh-so-simple duck prosciutto with which we started. I’ve tried twice and have yet to make a successful prosciutto. Enough of my woes, though. I’ve had enough success and gotten excited enough about this whole business that I started asking myself: Why?
Why am I doing this? Why have I gotten so incredibly into it? Why do I find it so unbelievably thrilling to get down and dirty with large chunks of meat that I devote time, money, and precious space in my under-sized Manhattan fridge to this? Why do I lavish precious time and money on expensive, intensive meat projects? Why has from-scratch deli become my hobby obsession instead of, say, knitting? You may have guessed I’m going to settle in for some philosophizing. I’m going to intersperse photos from April’s Smoking Challenge BBQ pulled pork adventures amongst my thoughts to keep you entertained. A bargain: food for thoughts.
I actually have tried knitting, and my needles are sitting unused on a shelf right now, while my little wine fridge-turned-curing chamber is getting quite a workout. It’s sitting idle at the moment as I concentrate on this piece of Boston butt, but I’m going to be setting a new round of biltong up soon.
This is the first “why” that I found for Charcutepalooza: sometimes you just can’t get things, or can’t get them easily, and if you want it you just gotta do it yourself. Or sometimes you can cut cost by DIYing, as I found with a salmon experiment last month.
This why—“DIY as cost-saver”—made me think of a wonderful response, by Doris and Jilly Cook, to last month’s New York Times “DIY Cooking Handbook.” These ladies did a truly wonderful job of highlighting the fallacy of slapping the labels “DIY” and “local” all over the place, indiscriminately, without concern for fundamentally different motives and rationales for at-home preparation.
“DIY,” they point out, is a concept closer to artisanal creation—hand-crafting components to control content and flavor. Real, local DIY, on the other hand, has a more primitive bent: it focuses on making a harvest last, and on conserving resources.
The various Charcutepalooza challenges, I’ve found, have alternately spoken to aspects of each of these DIY rationales. Where I’m happy to have packed onions away during the brining challenge, I also loved exploring the nuances of flavor I found in February’s home-cured bacon from locally farmed pork.
My interest in preservationism, I realized, comes from my interest in the past. As a lapsed archaeologist, I have an ongoing and vested concern in keeping history alive. If you’ve read my Ides of March Banquet series, you also know I have an occasional liking for living history (I’ve stayed clear of reenactments so far, but I did make my own Regency dress for a Lizzie Bennet costume a few years back).
It’s a no-brainer to say “I like artisanal food cuz of the flavaaazzz.” And while this may be true and flavaz may be awesome…I realized I really like making stuff from scratch because I am a total control freak. I’ve let go of a lot of this tendency in most areas of my life; I even have a Marcus Aurelius quote tattoo that basically says “Chill out, bro” in Ancient Greek.
This seems to have made me seek more and more control, however, in my food: I’ve really found a liking for taking a meal, not from soup to nuts, but from hand-picked nuts to nut soup with homemade broth. And figuring out exactly which elements I can manipulate to get a dish where I want it. This isn’t to say I don’t cheat: I do use canned broth, and similar conveniences when I’m strapped for time.
My real impetus for Charcutepalooza: I love going through a process, though, to get down to the “whys” of the end product I’m eating. Both the historical and the flavorful “whys.”
Charcuterie is perfect for this: normally an average reaction to it involves a pretty simple brain-wiping, drool-inducing, caveman-like “YUMMM.” Charcutepalooza challenges, however, force us to rewind from that “yum” and look at the time and elements that come together to craft it.
And as the months go on, I’m sure many of us are starting to see common threads that run through techniques (“Oh! This pickling spice stuff is good to have around, eh?”), and to get more of a hang of things like selecting and working with meat. We’re not even halfway through our Year of Meat and I already feel more confident in my knowledge of cuts, marbling, and butchery.
I’ve never had any squeamishness when it comes to working with meat—mammal or poultry: I vividly remember bouncing up and down around age 8 and asking my mom if I could examine chicken innards while she was cleaning a bird. As I ranted in comments on a great post from Winnie of Healthy Green Kitchen a couple of months ago, though, one of the most appalling things I’ve ever heard anyone say was, “I only eat chicken breast because I don’t like to think about the fact that I’m eating an animal – the drumsticks freak me out.” I usually pride myself on willingness to get up close and personal with my meat.
So, as I started exploring the “hows” of curing, I had to be honest with myself: I’m fine up to my elbows in a pig, but…I just can’t handle fish. When I finally acknowledged this, I decided I had to address it. I womanned up and bought this lovely Spanish mackerel to smoke. Ain’t he a beaut?
Yes, I have a disturbing tendency to personify my food. Back to Fish Issues…I find fish perfectly lovely on the outside or in fillet form, and I’ve always been alright picking away a little at a steamed fish in a Chinese restaurant. I’m also a huge fan of shellfish, and am always up for cracking a lobster open.
When I was a kid, though (hopefully one of my parents will comment and remind me how old), I had the misfortune to find a parasite in a piece of fish I was eating. This little worm in my fillet brought too much reality of life, food chains, and the non-sterility of food crashing down on my young self.
I vividly remember getting very, very upset, refusing to eat anything else at dinner (possibly puking?), and then curling up on the couch to watch Back to the Future 3. While Marty McFly helped me forget my immediate trauma, it took me years to eat a piece of fish without looking at each bite to check for worms.
I was a bit of a hypochondriac, to boot, and somehow developed a fear of choking on fishbones. OK, not “somehow”—I know very well that this had its root in the scene of Amadeus where Salieri’s dad chokes on a fishbone. The funny thing? My time working with meat for Charcutepalooza has given me extra confidence figuring out “how animals work.” It was a simple matter to work out this mackerel’s skeletal structure and clear flesh from bones with a fork.
So, in addition to exploring how food works, and the history of how we eat, I’ve been able through all this work with meat to overcome a little anxiety and hypocrisy. In the “how things work” category I even started getting a little adventurous: I tried to smoke some cheddar.
Sadly, the cheese failed epically because I forgot to put ice in my hot smoker to cool things down. Curiosity and control, though, are already pressing me to try again. In the meantime, thanks so much for taking this little meat-centric journey with me.
I rescued some of that gooey cheese, because the smoky cheddar flavor was too good to pass up. And so, I leave you with my resultant artisan-frugal-semi-local sandwich: an Onion Cheddar Pulled Pork Tartine.