A truly epic 14-hour adventure over the river and through the woods last Wednesday gave me plenty of time to extract every iota of diversion from the Wednesday Times. A good thing, too, because it gave me a chance to read Peter Savoy Hoffman's op-ed on meat curing regulations.*
If I really am dedicated to cooking by the seasons and supporting local agriculture, I thought, now would be the obvious time to buy a whole pig. Ideally, I would break it down into primal cuts, put the hams in salt for the next month, and then hang them at room temperature for two years, allowing them to slowly dry into prosciutto. And why not grind up the dark, fatty shoulders with salt, pepper and juniper, stuff the mixture into casings, and then leave the sausages in a cool room for six weeks to naturally ferment, developing delicious, tangy porcine flavors?
This is astonishing, because since Neolithic times, people have safely cured and preserved meats without refrigeration. Europeans have turned curing into an art, and the best processors are revered craftsmen who earn national medals of honor. Salt, time and a good dose of fresh air are the only additions needed to produce salsicce, culatello and 24-month-old prosciutto or serrano — foods that Americans smuggle home from
Europe in their luggage.
It was refreshing to see a chef tackle this kind of question without resorting to the kind of bluster you see sometimes over at the Gullet, or from Michael "first they came for the foie" Ruhlman. Considering that the movie based on the book that is relentlessly compared to this book is in theaters now, it might be a good time to forward the premise that the man who is preventing you from eating the hams Hoffman might cure in his basement is be none other than Upton Sinclair. A hypothesis:
In 1906, Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, an indictment of labor relations in America that happened to focus on the meat packing industry. In the single most persistent misreading ever, Americans ignored the fate of the Lithuanian immigrant family at the center of the novel, and clamored for sanitary reforms in the meatpacking industry. As a result, the 1906 Pure food and Drug Act.
The PF&DA limited the amout of poo food could legally contain, which is nice, but also inaugurated a legal fiction connecting industrial food and sanitary food. In the name of sanitation, slaughtering operations were centralized. Naturally, this concentration created as many problems as it solved, leading to HACCP:
More recently, in 1996, the Agriculture Department established the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, which detail how production facilities can minimize the chances of contamination. And the key requirement is that all meat be held at temperatures less than 42 degrees.
I have a call out to an animal science person who I'm hoping will help fill in this picture, but it seems as if the insistence on the cold chain is a reaction to massive changes in scale in the meatpacking industry, and perhaps more important, the de-skilling of this industry, as described by Schlosser in FFN. To review: the next time you find yourself tucking into a sandwich of Honey Baked Ham, rather than a subtle indigenous Jamon Soho,* raise your 24 ounces of soda pop to Upton Sinclair.
*Or read it here
** Hoffman seems to suggest it would be illegal for him to cure hams and sell them, even as part of a meal in his own restaurant. And yet Mario is noted for doing the same thing with jowls. Does Mario, a) have better lawyers b) more sack c) a cheery disregard for the USDA? d) all of the above?