Cure Me


NOVEMBER is a busy time for city restaurants. Urban dwellers close up their second homes, and market ingredients shift from cool tomatoes to dense squashes and earthy mushrooms. The appeal of eating comfort foods around a convivial table returns.

Two weeks ago, amid all this autumn activity, Stephen Kaye telephoned, offering to sell a whole Tamworth pig. Stephen is an upstate farmer who has brought us the most delicious asparagus I’ve eaten, the creamiest fingerling potatoes we’ve served, mint that made an ice cream still unsurpassed, and my first grass-fed beef, a Dexter-Angus cross. Now he was proposing to deliver a pig the week before Thanksgiving.

My first reaction was: Are you kidding? Do you have any idea of the logistics that go into serving the great American meal to 185 diners? My harried sous chef hasn’t the time or the space to handle a 150-pound carcass.

But then I remembered that this is also a busy time on the farm. It is a race against the frost, to gather root crops and plant garlic and hardy greens that winter over. And of course it is also ideal pig-killing time. Any later in the season, and precious forage or grain for other animals would have to be used to maintain the girth that the pig put on in summer pasture. Any earlier, and we wouldn’t be taking advantage of all the energy and nutrients available in the field grasses.

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?

I can’t, because the United States Department of Agriculture and the local health departments do not allow commercial processing of meat without refrigeration.

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.

In the United States, sadly, we have adopted a different approach. In the early 20th century, artisan sausage-makers catered to fellow immigrants and their children who hungered for the traditions and tastes of their homelands. As a child in Bergen County, N.J., I was greeted at my German grandmother’s house with a large platter of bündnerfleisch, Swiss air-dried beef. I pronounced it “bunder,” and translated it into my personal lexicon as “wonder meat,” because I never tasted anything else so good.

The shop that sold that meat is long gone. When first-generation craftsmen retired or died, their children didn’t want to take over the business and the salumeri of the nation’s Little Italys and the wurst shops of the Little Bavarias closed.

At the same time, meat production became industrialized, and was conducted on a much larger scale. As production speeds increased and labor was increasingly unskilled, food safety became a serious issue. The making of sausage and cured meats, once a skilled profession, became an opportunity to process discarded meats into a marginally edible form. Tainted meat and unsanitary factories led to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

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.

And so the ancient, ingenious methods of meat preservation created in the days before refrigeration have come under attack because they don’t use refrigerators.

Yet now, as more chefs cook seasonally and buy locally, the use of whole animals is becoming more commonplace. Embracing the notion that meat is a precious resource, chefs in New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, Ore., are rediscovering the ancient crafts of meat preservation.

Unfortunately, federal and local health officials are cracking down on these production methods. Last spring, New York City health department officials summarily tossed scores of prosciutto legs — without ever measuring the meat’s moisture or salinity levels to determine their safety. If it was being held anywhere in the bacteria “danger zone” of 42 to 140 degrees, then it was deemed unsafe.

Yet Italy’s finest prosciutto pro-ducers and Spain’s great Ibérico arti-sans hold their products at 55 to 60 degrees, a temperature range that they say enhances flavors, without causing health problems.

What we need is to invert the logic now applied to meat safety. Rather than apply refrigeration standards to an ancient and safe method of preservation, we need an alternative set of standards that take into account what salting and drying can do to discourage the growth of bacteria. Federal and local health officials should recognize artisanal methods as an alternative to refrigeration.

November is a time to give thanks to earth’s bounty, enjoy the fruits of a good season and prepare for the colder, harsher days ahead. On second thought, maybe I will take that pig from Stephen Kaye.

Peter Hoffman is the owner and chef of the restaurant Savoy.