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.”

I’m sick of Michael Pollan

Does the guy make good points? Yes. But in the last week, since his book can out on Jan. 1, I have grown sick of hearing from him (NPR has had him on three times — wait — four, going out of its way to fit him in) and reading about him (Slate’s done him twice, Salon once, and Serious Eats has mentioned him three times). And that’s just from my RSS feed reader. Is he the only guy who can talk about this stuff?

He speaking in town this Sunday. I’m not sure if I will go.

Reader mail

Last summer, I did a cooking demo at which I read some scenes of livestock death. I wrote about it here. Yesterday, from visitor Artfulhome, came this comment:

Big of you to want to have a connection to the poor animal who died painfully and fearfully for your “fatty, juicy and delicious” dinner. I hope it was worth it. Anthony Bourdain has disgusted me with his macho bullshit where he seems to think that watching an animal’s brutal, violent killing somehow elevates him, and the pleasure he takes in eating its remains. It is a radical idea in this country, that perhaps we should be more advanced than to torture and kill to live well, when we really don’t have to. I love eating and cooking too, but am this close to becoming a raving vegan. The meat counter at my local supermarket has begun to smell like death to me, no matter that they sell free range, organic meat; that the animal had perhaps a slightly healthier, more pleasant life than most in its place is scant comfort. Maybe it’s getting older and having a closer relationship to my own mortality, maybe it’s looking in my terrier’s eyes and realizing that she is sentient, and that she, but for a slight accident of birth, could have been your panicked, scared, tortured pork chop.

I have a few points.

First: It should come as not surprise that the meat counter smells of death. It is death. The problem is meat eaters for whom it does not have any meaning of death. My point is that understanding, as a meat eater, the meat-is-death connection is valuable and important. Recognizing the sacrifice (of both human and animal) can encourage more care and less waste.

Second: Torture is a tricky word to use when talking about the meat we eat, especially when talking about all meat.The amount to which an animal knows it is going to die when it goes to the slaughterhouse can be debated, but I caution against the over anthropomorphizing of livestock.

Third: I, too, look at my dog and think about the similarities — I’m fascinated by how pigs can seem so dog-like when given the chance to run around and play. It doesn’t stop me from eating meat, but it does make me care about who is raising my meat.

Fourth: There is something macho about publicizing your willingness to watch of animals die. I’m no Anthony Bourdain apologist, but if a reader learns a little more about the violence involved, I think it has a value.

Dreaming of pork polenta

On visits to Philadelphia (and southern New Jersey), I always look forward to scrapple. The ingredients are off-putting: ground pork offal such as skin, brains, tongue, heart and liver mixed with cornmeal and spices. It’s like pork-parts polenta.

Everything’s mixed together and then formed into a loaf that is then cooked and packaged (buy Habbersett if you can get it). Then the loaf is sliced into half-inch pieces and cooked again on a hot griddle for about ten minutes per side. The wait is agonizing and it is tempting to try to speed it up, but resist. The reward is a crispy exterior with a mushy interior.

Some people eat it with ketchup, the savages. It’s fucking breakfast.

Why it’s not available in Iowa — with its more than 17 million pigs, 12,600 acres of corn and fair share of Germans — has always stumped me.

(If you know of a place that has it, leave a note in the comments.)

I can never find this recipe when I want it

This is not — nor will it ever be — a recipe blog. But whenever I want to use this recipe I cannot find it so I am putting it here so that I can always find.

What’s that? Put it in a recipe box, you say? Nah, too easy.

From Rick Bayless, it originally appeared in the June/July 2004 issue of Saveur (No. 76).

Barbecue Spice
Makes about ½ cup
Hickory House [his parent’s barbecue shop] used Cain’s barbecue spice blend, no longer made, as its dry rub. This recipe is author Bayless’s interpretation of that now unobtainable product.
2 large cloves of garlic; peeled adn finely chopped
¼ cup ground chile, such as ancho, New Mexico or guajillo, or paprika
4 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons dried oregano, preferably Mexican
1 teaspoon dried thyme

Put garlic, ground chile, salt, pepper, sugar, oregano and thyme into a small bowl. Stir well, making sure garlic is thoroughly combine. If not using spice mix right away, store in a small clean jar, tightly sealed, in the refrigerator for up to one month.

Hickory House Mild Barbecue Sauce
Makes about 3 cups
This sweet, ketchup-based sauce is typical of the Oklahoma City barbecue style.
2 cups ketchup
⅔ cup dark brown sugar
4 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
¼ cup worcestershire sauce
2–3 tablespoons white or cider vinegar
1–2 teaspoons barbecue spice (see recipe above)
½ teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

Put ketchup, surgar, garlic, ¾ cup water, worcestershire, vinegar, barbecue spice and pepper into a small heavy-bottomed saucepan and stir until well combined. Season to taste with salt., if you like. Simer over medium-low heat, if necessary, to maintain a gentle simmer, for 30 minutes. If not using sauce right away, allow to cool, then store in a clean jar, tightly sealed, in the refrigerator for up to one month.

Going whole hog for the interview

A 52-year-old man in bright-yellow hip waders hunched over a pig, on its back and lifeless, carefully removing its skin. Clotted blood dissolved and spread like watercolors around the drain. The faint odor of barnyard hung in the air.

I stood in the corner of the cement-floored room, asking questions.

“Do you remember the first pig you ever slaughtered?”

The butcher stopped and cocked his head. “What?”

“Do you remember the first pig you ever slaughtered?”

“Nope,” he said, returning to his attention to maneuvering his knife through the subcutaneous fat covering the pig’s chest.

We’d been at this for half an hour. I asked each question twice and he gave the shortest answer possible. His longest response came when he spelled his four-letter last name.

“Do you like your job?”

He stopped again. “What?”

“Do you like your job?”

“Used to,” he said, again returning to his work. This time he shook his head slightly, a movement that told me exactly what he thought of me.

He gave me points for not vomiting when he eviscerated the pig or dug around in the 50-gallon bucket of waste to find the eyeballs he was supposed to save for dissection by future biologists. But he didn’t trust me; he wasn’t going to tell me any more than necessary.

During what could only be called a one-sided interview, the butcher’s boss interrupted us.

“You want a brat?” he asked me. Well, those were the actual words he used. But his offer of ground pork stuffed into a sheep intestine was really his way of asking a different question.

“Are you a pussy?”

It is one thing to watch someone slaughter hogs. It is something else to hear the sploosh of blood gushing out of a pig’s jugular and sloshing into a bucket of entrails while noshing on the victim’s brother. This offer was a call out.

It didn’t matter that I wasn’t really hungry, either, there was one obviously right answer.

Both of these had grown up around animal slaughter. They felt no more emotion when killing a pig or lamb as I do squashing a mosquito; it’s just the way it is.

The boss brought me just a brat — no bun, no ketchup, no mustard — and held it out to me. The translucent casing sheathed the warm, gray meat of the just-steamed sausage.

I don’t remember if I hesitated when before I took the sausage or when I went to eat it. All I remember is the snap as I bit through the natural casing.

It would have tasted better grilled.

How to kill chickens the wrong (and the right) way

A couple weeks ago I mentioned our New Hampshire hosts’ chicken slaughter and promised more detail for those of you thirsty for blood. This is the account of the first batch. 20 more were killed last weekend.

Campbell accused me of sadism for asking for the details. It’s not sadism. Humans are omnivores and that means meat and that means death and killing. I believe it’s responsible to be informed and to get over whatever squeamishness I have if I’m going to continue to eat it.

And so, more from Campbell:

Preparation is the first step. Water must be warmed to 140 degrees, weapons of slaughter must be sharpened and ready, a block for beheading must be set up, twine with which to tie the deceased to a tree and allow them to bleed and wits must be mustered.

The second — and arguably most mentally taxing — step is selection. Man must play God as he chooses which birds are worthy of continuing their lives and which are not. Having selected a bird each, Josh and I made our ways to the front yard, right on the corner so everyone could see, where our station had been setup.

Now is slaughter. The first bird was manual — hands breaking the neck. Either the chicken had an adamantine skeletal system or Josh did not do it correctly. The bird remained intact and upset. After 20 seconds of trying, Josh put the chicken on the stump and cut its head off with a cleaver chop.

I took the next bird, starting with the cleaver. Unfortunately, a combination of a loose blade and a faulty swing left the chicken with a massive gash in its neck, but a head still on its shoulders. It took two more swipes to remove the head.

The four other birds were executed old school: an ax to the neck. While holding one of the birds for Josh, the blood pumped out of the chicken and onto my face. After losing their heads, the eyes remained open as did the mouths. Some of the birds continued a breathing motion to no avail. They looked like freedivers returning to the water’s surface, greedy for air. The bodies were much livelier. Whoever held the chicken while the other cut it would pull the body away and hold it upside down while the headless bird flapped and spewed blood everywhere. After, the corpse was hung on a branch to continue bleeding.

Blanching is next. The birds were dipped into water heated to 140 degrees by a propane heater. Having been bathed for 30 seconds, the body returns to hanging and is plucked.

Plucking takes as much time as all other steps combined. Rather than plucking the smallest feathers, we burned them off in the fire.

Then we eviscerated the birds, my favorite step. Josh and I took them to an outdoor table where we removed their feet, crop, oil secreting gland and intestines. To remove the feet is easy and fun, simply hold them and cut through the knee joint. The crop is located in the neck and was loaded with the food the chickens had been eating. Because we had decided to do this last minute, the birds had been eating earlier, although we should not have let. After the crop has been pulled from the neck, one cuts off the oil gland with two triangular cuts above the anus. To remove the innards, we had to carefully pinch the anus and cut around it, then pull out all the innards through the newly enlarged asshole. We kept the hearts and livers and tossed everything else.

With the six bodies cleaned out, they look like grocery store meat, but are nowhere near as clean. Josh and I brought them inside and spent about half an hour washing them and another half hour plucking the missed feathers.

In all it took about three hours to prepare the six birds, having only 2 people, except when we had 5 during partially plucking.

Later I found pin feathers in my drumstick. That made me very ill at ease — a reminder that the meat was once an animal. They tasted like chicken.

Raising a flesh eater

There are a lot of things I’m not supposed to do as a parent. Letting my two-year-old daughter see photographs of slaughtered animals is pretty high on that list.

When I do, it’s not because I’m trying to turn her into a vegetarian. It’s because I want her to understand that the meat she eats doesn’t grow in a hermetically sealed Styrofoam tray. It was once flesh.

My hope is that she’ll learn to respect the meat she eats, to recognize that some animal has made the ultimate sacrifice for a meal that we’ll consume and then likely forget, to be concerned with how her food was treated when it was alive.

Getting kids to make that connection is hard. The traditional foods of childhood — hot dogs, bologna and hamburgers — bear little resemblance to the flesh from which they’re born. A hot dog looks the same whether it’s made of cow, pig, chicken, turkey or soybeans; they’re just different shades of brown.

I didn’t start by showing her the picture of the pig lying on the floor of a slaughterhouse. That came later. Nor did I force it — Look at the blood! Look at it! — on my daughter.

I began trying to get her, when she was just a year old, to make the connection by subverting the cartoony pictures of farm animals in the books that line her shelf. I would point to an animal on the page and, as another parent might try to coax out its sound or the color of its fur, ask if it was something we might eat.

Do we eat pigs? Chickens? Horses? (Well, some people do, sweetie.)

But even for an adult, it’s hard to connect a cartoon cow to the pieces of beef rib eye that lie on the dinner plate between the mashed potatoes and green beans. I wanted the connection in her mind to be concrete.

So we began walking along the 20 feet of supermarket meat counter, starting with the lobster tank and salmon fillets and ending with the pork sausage and bacon-wrapped fillet mignons. As we went I would tell her about each cut in as much detail as I could.

“The pork chops,” I would say, running my fingers along her spine, “come from a pig’s loin, right here on its back.”

I got used to receiving odd looks from people standing on both sides of the counter.

“She doesn’t need to hear that,” said one 50-year-old meat cutter, trying to veil his disgust with a jovial smile.

It’s odd that parents discuss with their kids what’s left over after digestion easily, and that conversations between parents can degenerate into discussions about poop and pee suddenly, but talking to my daughter about what she’s eating made me an instant member of a lunatic fringe.

Was I being creepy? I suppose so, but I couldn’t think of a better way to get her to understand that animal flesh was really no different from her own.

But bacon doesn’t look like a pig, New York strip doesn’t look like a cow and a whole chicken hardly looks like a chicken. Even in our rural state, my daughter hadn’t interacted with any livestock before it became her lunch.

So when I met Lois selling pork and lamb at the Saturday morning farmers’ market, I asked if I could bring my daughter up to her farm. Over several visits, she laughed at the bleating lambs and was fixated by the pigs romping in the open fields and chasing each other through the lots.

We would take home Lois’s meat and, when my daughter watched me cook it for dinner, I would explain that this might be the very same pig she had had so delighted her the week prior.

And when she glimpsed the photograph of the slaughtered pig, its throat cut, its pooled blood, its death throes causing its legs and body to blur, she didn’t seemed bothered. But it seemed to click in her young mind.

Not taking her eyes off of the photo, she asked in most serious tone a two-year-old can muster: “Is that Lois’ pig, Daddy?”

Executing chickens

Our New Hampshire hosts slaughtered their meat chickens yesterday. Reports Campbell, Michelle’s 18-year-old son:

On the first two we made mistakes. Josh tried to do it with his hands, but couldn’t, so he switched to a cleaver instead. I used the cleaver but it took three tries. Then we switched to the ax, which got blood on my face.

Slaughter apprehension

I was back at the farm today for the first time in a few weeks and spent time watching the pigs. They are warily curious, especially in contrast to the sheep pasturing next to them. Sheep seem stupid and scared of everything, always making sure of the space between themselves and visitors. The pigs follow visitors around their pen, sticking their snouts through the fence, shoving their way closer, climbing on each other for a better view.

The longer I’m away from the farm, the easier I think it will be to slaughter my pig when her time comes. And every time I go back to the farm and watch the pigs running and snorting and sniffing, I’m snapped back to the reality of how emotionally hard it will be.