Of mice and maggots (La Quercia, part 3)

Herb Eckhouse has been praised for the cured meats he’s producing at his two-year-old Norwalk, Iowa, plant. Julia Moskin’s piece in yesterday’s New York Times mentioned Eckhouse and La Quercia near the bottom (I’ve written two posts about La Quercia) and sparked some interest. I wanted to share another story from my fall visit.

Five years ago, Eckhouse was a former seed-company executive with a Harvard MBA who had never cured a single leg of pork.

His experiments began in February 2003 when he salted four hams, put them in a silver two-door refrigerator in his garage for six months and then hung them in his finished basement for another three. Eckhouse had moved the white acoustic ceiling tiles so he could hang the meat from hooks in the wooden floor joists.

He checked the drying pig legs almost daily. Taking the room’s temperature. Adjusting fans.Opening and closing the air vent in the ceiling. Checking each ham for mold. Letting fresh air in through a window. He kept his records in an Excel spreadsheet.

After one ham had been gnawed by mice, he hung paper plates on the strings holding the meat.

First thing one morning, during the summer three years ago, Eckhouse went down to check his second batch of hanging meats. For whatever reason, he didn’t turn the light on as he began his daily machinations. The cool, moist air came in with the sunlight through the basement window well. And then, as he moved within a foot of one ham, he saw the undulating white mass.

When he realized it was his precious ham crawling with maggots, Eckhouse lost it.

He bolted back upstairs, implored his wife Kathy and their three children not to go into the basement and, eventually, settled his nerves. Then he returned to the basement, found and repaired a hole in the window screen, cut out the affected meat and left it to hang another three months.

“That,” Eckhouse said “is when Kathy decided we were truly nuts.”