La Quercia, part 2

Traditionally, pigs slaughtered in the fall become the hams that are hung through the winter, spring and summer. To become the best prosciutto they can, the hams depend on the cooperation of the Italian weather.

“But every week, the best prosciutto year starts in our building,” says owner Herb Eckhouse. Every Friday at La Quercia, 500 hams begin the journey that will last nine months. After trimming and salting, the hams go through a series of heated and cooled rooms, each set to simulate a different season.

The first is winter. It is cool and dry. The hams are still raw and plump. Then comes spring, more moisture and warmer temperatures. The salt has worked its way into the muscle and drawn out water. The air carries begins to carry an earthy sweetness. Then comes summer.

Summer is the largest room with dozens of rows of racks on each side, each representing week in the prosciutto’s life. It is warm and musty.

“It’s still exciting to me. I’m still tuned in,” Eckhouse says. “My reaction is ‘Oh my god, are we gonna get all these things sold?’ But I don’t worry as much as I used to.”

Indeed, things are looking good for the Norwalk, Iowa, prosciutto makers. Eckhouse and his wife Kathy have garnered attention from the national press. Whole Foods sells their cured meats nationally. Paul Bertolli, Alice Waters and Mario Batali have said glowing things about their products. Bon Appétit recently named them Food Artisans of the Year.

Even with the heaps of praise, Eckhouse admits they’ve yet to be as celebrated in their home state. So did they return to Iowa to do this?

Eckhouse, an Iowa native, smiled. “It’s where the pigs are.”

La Quercia

Iowa has its world-class products. Maytag Dairy Farms‘ blue cheese and Niman Ranch‘s pork come to mind. But perhaps the greatest example is La Quercia.

Kathy and Herb Eckhouse’s two-year-old prosciutteria supplies cured pork to Whole Foods, Alice Waters and Mario Batali. The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times have sung its praises. Robert Parker — yes, that one — offered up his tasting notes with favorable comparisons to the great hams of Europe. Vogue’s food critic Jeffrey Steingarten called it “The best prosciutto you can get in this country, imported or domestic.”

I’m driving out to see the place Wednesday and to grill Herb and Kathy about their five years of prosciutto experiments. Their experimental hams were first cured in a refrigerator, to simulate a Parma, Italy, winter. Then they were hung to cure further. In the couple’s finished basement.

I’m curious to know if they ever cracked open a ham after nine months to a year of curing to find it rotting from the inside out.

No Michelin Guide for Iowa

Today from the Michelin Guide people, presented here without comment or defense.


NEW YORK, Oct. 9 — Michelin said today that Iowa will never be given its own version of the famed Michelin Guide. Representatives of the venerable institution that is the Michelin Guide said that even though many residents of the state resemble Bibendum(R), better known as the Michelin Man, the food served at most establishments could not be considered cuisine.

“The pork tenderloin hammered flat and deep-fried until it is dry and served on a roll from the local Hy-Vee is not worthy of our attention,” said Jean-Luc Naret, director of the Michelin Guide. “It is always shit, even when the establishment labels the dish ‘our famous’ or ‘world’s largest.'”

It remains to be seen whether any city in this culinary wasteland will ever be graced with a guide outside of, maybe, Chicago. When the results of the Michelin Guide New York City 2008 are being celebrated during a special panel discussion event at 7 p.m., Thurs., Oct. 11 at Borders Books & Music, Time Warner Center, the entire region’s food culture will be mocked by a panel of expert foodies and other Important People.

Points that the panel will likely cover are that it is impossible to delineate Iowa restaurants into different cuisine categories; probably no restaurant would be worthy of even a single star even if any Michelin inspector (shudder) ventured within the state’s borders; and pretty much every restaurant in the state serves a menu with two dishes and a glass of wine or dessert for $40 or less, making the Bib Gourmand category completely superfluous.

Michelin argued that by refusing to print a guide to the any part of the Midwest it was sparing the population there from the elitism of “trophy dining” and related debates that plague true appreciators of food in the United States’ real cities, like New York City, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and San Francisco.

For more information, visit

When you say two cloves of garlic…

I hate getting that is made up of a gazillion sticky little cloves. Impossible to mince. And I’m not going to throw a bunch in my Cuisinart with some olive oil and keep it in my fridge just to have it rot. Nor an I going to buy jars of overpriced, pre-minced cloves.

So when I found some garlic at the farmers’ market that came four cloves to the head, I was overjoyed that I would not have to swear off garlic.

Use lard, you wussies

I’m surprised at the common disgust non-vegetarians have for lard pie crusts. They scrunch up their faces and question why you wouldn’t just use butter.

I’m not advocating slathering lard on toast, but it does make a better, flakier crust.

And now The Oregonian poses the question, via Chow, of whether olive oil produces a better crust.

Come on guys, suck it up, and use the pig fat.

Attack of the food bloggers (and anonymous reviewers)

The Wall Street Journal ran a piece that suggests online restaurant reviewers just might not be held to the same ethical standards as, say, Frank Bruni. Gosh, really?

(And let’s not debate if there are standards for professional reviewers. The Association of Food Journalists can even list them for you.)

And while the piece tried to look at bloggers, it didn’t really. The main evidence presented was Chicago’s Dine wooing of Yelp reviewers. And I would hardly call that collection of reviews authoritative. Any nitwit knows that a online single review — whether for a book, highchair or restaurant — is as useful as asking my dog what is opinion on the death penalty is.

So perhaps this is the big, bad main-stream media taking a whack at the little guy. (It is, after all, Rupert’s Wall Street Journal.) But I don’t buy it. Smart business are realizing the power a single person can have on the Internet. And how cheaply they can be bought. (Drop me a line and we’ll talk.)

This has to be scary for restaurateurs, who are already dealing with low odds of success, to think that someone with a computer and a following could have a single bad experience as leave them on Eater’s Deathwatch. And at least one big-time chef has taken a whack at food bloggers these that exact reason.

I can hardly blame him. But it’s an imperfect world. If people are willing to sell their loyalties to the highest bidder (or for at least a free dinner), there ain’t much you can do.

How we eat

This is a 90-second audio piece about how we relate to food and cooking. Imagine a 1930s-style radio announcer reading the lead-in, which reads:

The abundance of food in America means eating and cooking are no longer things done simply for sustenance. And while cooking game shows can be found across the TV dial — and physically eating at home, instead of on the go, is becoming more common — fewer and fewer meals are being cooked at home from scratch. So what is our relationship with food? We sent reporter Nick Bergus to downtown Iowa City over his lunch hour to find out.

Fact or fiction? Public food assistance and obesity

Ironically, people on food stamps and in WIC programs are more likely to be obese than those in the general population. This has been the case for years. And a report, from a study conducted by Middle Tennessee State University and recently released by the USDA, confirms this.

But this is clearly not the official party line. While the first report carries a disclaimer (“The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of ERS or USDA.”), another study that carries no such disclaimer and was released the same day admits that this may have been the case in the past but proclaims that it is no longer.

So which is it? One suspects that the problem hasn’t disappeared — America hasn’t slimmed last I checked — but that perhaps the rest of the population has just caught up.

After all, America hasn’t slimmed last I checked.

Offal and crème brulèe

My main course could have been called the Depraved Platter — veal sweetbreads and foie gras. Oh yes, Wild Rice mostly lived up to expectations.

Sweetbreads—which can refer to either the thymus, like the ones I ate, or the pancreas of calves, lambs or pigs—are much meatier than I expected.

These sweetbreads were crusted with almonds and, I assume, baked. They had a much subtler flavor than I expected, too. My mother and I debated the correct pronunciation of the word offal. (She preferred oh-fell while I believed it to be the same as awful.)

Dinner began with an amuse, in this case a cold grilled beef and corn salad with avocado and crème freîche. It had a nice meaty flavor and a mostly chunky texture that contrasted with the fatty smoothness of the avocado and crème freîche.

The first course was a delightful assortment of six different cheeses ranging from a hard sheep-and-goat cheese from to a creamy blue from . Paired with wild rice and nut bread and a cranberry-orange it was divine. But how can you screw up an uncomposed cheese course?

Portions had grown in the four years since we ate at the restaurant and the quality of service declined. Our waitron was a part-timer who admitted she waited tables only part time and seems to think that making a distinction between fungus and mushroom is ludicrous. We also perceived loss of focus on fresh and season ingredients.

Following organs for dinner, I felt I deserved the most clichéd dessert on the menu: crème brulèe.

Scene: near an oak tree, in a pasture, by the highway, in Iowa

Propped up by the bucket of a skid loader, the cow was in obvious distress. Her belly was bloated; a blue tongue stuck out of her mouth as she panted and belched; snot and a trickle blood ran from her nostrils. The three men looked at the downed cow much the way the same group might bend over the hood of an ailing pickup truck.

One of the men, a farmer from down the road, saw her lying on her side in the sun as he’d driven by, noted she didn’t look good, and stopped. The second, the first’s second cousin and contractor who owned the cow, had arrived after a quick phone call. The third, a butcher-turned-laborer, arrived a couple minutes later. Each had his own expertise and suggestions.

The 14-year-old cow had fallen in a slight depression in the pasture. It was possibly from the bull trying to mount her, possibly she just collapsed. But with her head slightly down hill and with the sun beating down on her black hide on a 90-degree day, she started to puff up.

Quickly it was clear that the men were too late. Even after they had helped her onto her side with the skid loader, she refused water and wouldn’t stand. The cow could do nothing to beat the flies off her eyes or back. Then she started to low.

For several seconds she let out intermittent, throaty bellows, and then slumped over, her left eye glassy and unblinking.

“She’s gone,” said the butcher.

“She didn’t have a chance, really,” said the farmer.

“Fuck,” said the contractor.