Long before the Great Renaissance swept across Europe, and probably even in the earliest days of the Greek and Roman empires, people had learned to preserve animal protein from season to season by salting, curing and smoking all kinds of meat. Before the relatively recent convenience of “electric refrigeration” and even in the days when ice cut from lakes and ponds extended the shelf life of farm and home meat products, the ancient craft of “Charcuterie” was honored and passed on from generation to generation. My life-long interest in food history has convinced me that nowhere on planet earth can one find such a happy confluence of food traditions as here in the “New World” we call America. Not only is our continent the birthplace of food species which have fed the entire world since the voyages of Columbus, but those who later immigrated here brought to our land methodologies of food preparation which enrich us in profound ways; none perhaps more compelling in their great variety and gourmet delight than the art of “Charcuterie”.
In Pennsylvania alone, the promise of religious freedom drew Bavarians, Hessians, Alsatians and Swiss in large numbers, their mixed ancestry usually catalogued rather carelessly as the “Pennsylvania Deutsch”, many of them of an Anabaptist faith, including the Amish and Mennonites. They lived close to the soil and practiced a frugal philosophy: they used every part of the animals they raised and filled their root cellars with the fruit of the land. They were sausage-makers and pickling kings supreme, putting up jaggerwurst, thuringer, landjagger, Deitscher Gans (“Dutch Goose”), and of course my favorite bratwurst. Their domesticated rabbits went into hasenpfeffer, or jugged hare, unused beef cuts into saurbratten, and the birds they hunted into fasaneworscht (or pheasant sausage). The thymus glands of their livestock became world-famous sweetbreads, and it is laughingly said even the squeal of their pigs was bottled for winter fare. All of this thanks to long-rooted skills in the use of curing salt, vinegar, spices and smoke. In my travels, I love to visit certain communities in Lancaster and York counties in Penn- sylvania and the villages near Kidron, and in Holmes county, Ohio. There we can feast on such century-sweetened treasures as these.
I was blessed to grow up close to Italian-immigrant communities, and to absorb the taste and smell of sizzling sausages being grilled by itinerant street vendors. The sandwiches in the lunch boxes of my Sicilian school-mates always overflowed with such “cold cuts” as mortadella, (carelessly called baloney by the uninformed),capicolla, Tuscan salami, sopressata, prosciutto ham, pepperone, and (my favorite) pastrami. Our local butcher shop, with sawdust covering the wood floors, always hung with such savory tubes and globes of meaty magic, and Mr. Schuster always saved the ends and odd pieces for small boys whose eyes filled with wonder at the taste of old-world treats fresh from the smoker.
The American “tasting table” goes on with Loukanika from Greece, kielbasa from Poland, chorizo from Spain and Mexico, breakfast bangers from England, and lap chong (smoked pork), from China. I leave for last my love affair with all things Cajun and Creole, and the andouille and boudin blanc sausages without which my “filet gumbo” and “jambalaya” would be the poorer. (I now slow- smoke my own andouille.) And of course, old fashion corned beef ,(the mother of all meaty providence) is a regular feature in my basement curing crock. For a basic curing brine for five pounds of meat, I would use 2 cups of kosher salt, a half-cup of sugar, 2 cloves of minced garlic and two tablespoons of mixed pickling spice in one gallon of water, brought to a simmer and cooled down in a five-gallon non-metallic container, such as a plastic storage bucket. Keep the brisket or other cut submerged with a weight for 3 to 5 days in the coolest possible place. (It is a good idea to add 4 teaspoons of “pink salt” – sodium nitrite to the brine as a health safety precaution and to insure a nice color to the finished product.) A double rinse with clear water after brining and the corned beef will be ready for the required cooking.If I were preparing a ham or bacon, I would perform a dry cure of salt and sugar, and then a slow cold smoke over hickory wood, followed by a hot smoke for an internal temperature of 180 degrees F. NOTE: Cold smoking requires special equipment and experience. A good resource for pink salt and other curing supplies is sausagemaker.com
Home-made pastrami is a special treat. The author first made a regular corned beef from a small rump cut, then rolled it in toasted and crushed pepper corns and coriander seed before smoking it over apple chips for more than an hour. Al Cooper Photo