April 15, 2013
When we think about pigs today, most of us likely imagine the Wilbur or Babe-type variety: pink and more or less hairless. Mention pig farming and images of hundreds upon hundreds of animals crammed into indoor cages may come to mind, too. But it wasn’t always like this. Prior to the industrial revolution, pigs came in an astounding variety of shapes, sizes, colors and personalities. And the ham made from their cured meat was just as diverse.
“The tale of ham’s innovation began around 200 years ago, and it paved the way for how ham is produced today,” said Nicola Swift, the creative food director of the Ginger Pig, a company of butchers and farmers that specializes in rare breeds of livestock reared in England’s North York Moors. Swift presented a talk on the history of ham at the BACON conference in London last weekend, which sadly was not devoted to bacon but to “things developers love.”
One family in particular, the Harrises, almost single-handily changed the way England turned pigs into ham, she explained, and in doing so, they inadvertently laid the foundations for large-scale, homogenized pig farming.
Mary and John Harris were pig folk. Their family hailed from Calne, a quiet town in Southwest England. In the early and mid-1800s, they played a small but important role in providing London with pork. At the time, much of London’s pork arrived by way of Ireland. But without refrigeration, transporting large amounts of meat was impossible. Instead, pig handlers would literally walk the animals to the Irish coast, corral them onto boats destined for Bristol, and then continue to trek to London by foot.
But a deliciously fat pig forced to trot more than 100 miles would soon turn into a lean, tough mass of muscle. To make sure the ham, chops and bacon that those animals were destined to become remained fatty, tender and flavorful, pig herders would make pit stops along the way to give the animals a rest and fatten them up. The Harris farm was one such destination. The family also supplied Calne with meat from their small shop on Butcher’s Row, founded in 1770.
The Harrises were by no means well off. If they butchered 6 or 8 pigs in a week they wrote it off as a success. Still, they got by all right. That is, until tragedy struck. In 1837, John Harris, the relatively young head of the household, died suddenly, leaving his wife, Mary, to manage the business and look after the couple’s 12 children. A few years later, just as the family was getting back on its feet, hard times fell upon them once again. It was 1847, and the Irish potato famine arrived.
In Ireland, potatoes fed not only people but their pigs, too. As season after season of potato crops failed, the Irish could not feed themselves, much less their animals. The supply of pork to the Harris’ farm and butcher shop stopped arriving. In desperation, Mary and her son, George, hatched a scheme to send George to America by ship. The idea, they decided, was for George to strike up a pig business deal with American farmers and figure out a way to transport their slaughtered animals across the Atlantic in boxes packed with salt to ward off spoilage during the long journey. On its way to England, that meat would cure into ham and George’s entrepreneurial venture would save the family.
Not surprisingly, George failed in his mission. But while in the States, he did learn of a remarkable new practice the Americans were pursuing called ice houses. In the U.S., this method allowed farmers to slaughter pigs not only in months ending in an ‘r’ (or those cold enough for the meat not to rot before it could be cured and preserved), but during any time of year – even in steamy July or August. Curing, or the process of preventing decomposition-causing bacteria from setting in by packing the meat in salt, was then the only way to preserve pork for periods of time longer than 36 hours. Such horrendously salty meat was eaten out of necessity rather than enjoyment, however, and it often required sitting in a bucket of water for days at time before it could be rinsed of its saltiness to the point that it would even be palatable. ”This all harks back to the day when people had to preserve something when they had lots of it because there were other times when they didn’t have much,” Swift said. “This type of preserving goes back hundreds and hundreds of years.”
Ice houses, specially constructed sheds with packed ice blocks either collected locally or imported from Norway, offered partial relief from that practice, however. Charcoal acted as an insulator, preventing the ice from melting quickly and trapping the cool air within the small room.
When George returned home, curly tail between legs, he immediately got busy earning back his family’s trust by experimenting with ice house design. By 1856, he had succeeded in constructing what was likely the first ice house in England. The ham that resulted from slaughtering pigs in that cool confine was more tender and tasty since it didn’t have to be aggressively cured with large amounts of salt. Eventually, the Harrises shifted to brining techniques, or curing in liquid, which led to the creation of the massively popular Wiltshire ham.
The family patented George’s creation, and it soon began spreading to other farmers and ham producers who licensed the technology around the country. The Harris’ wealth increased so quickly and so dramatically that they partly financed the construction of a branch of the Great Western Railway to their village in 1863. Several decades after that, they helped bring electricity to Calne.
While the Harris’ tale is one of personal triumph, their mark on England’s ham production did not come without cultural costs. Prior to the ice house, each region in the UK and Ireland enjoyed their own specific breed of pig. In Lincolnshire, for example, Lincolnshire ham originated from the Lincolnshire curly coat, an enormous beast of a pig that was around twice the size of the animals typically bred today. It’s long, thick curly white coat kept the hardy animal warm throughout the damp winters, and its high fat content provided plenty of energy for the farm laborers that relied upon its exceptionally salty ham for sustenance. After a long decline, that breed finally went extinct in the 1970s thanks to industrialized farming.
Other regions once boasted their own breeds and unique ham brews. In Shropshire, people made “black ham,” which they cured along with molasses, beer and spices. This created an exceptional mix of salty sweetness, with a tinge of sourness from the beer. In Yorkshire, a breed called the large white – which is still around today – inspired a method of steaming cured ham in order to more efficiently remove the salt, while in Gloucestershire people preferred to add apples to their ham cures. But after the Harris’ ham empire took off, a massive advertising campaign that followed painted a picture of what ham and bacon should look and taste like, largely removing these traditions from kitchens around the country. “Most of the regional variances are sadly not known any more except to ham geeks,” Swift said.
In addition to stamping out ham variety, the Harris’ factory – which soon employed hundreds of staff and processed thousands of pigs each week – and others like it began favoring homogenized mass-production methods of indoor pig rearing. Older residents in Calne recall the factory’s unmistakable reek in the 1930s. Eventually, public protests caused its closure and demolition in the 1960s, but for local pigs and ham, the damage was already done. Between 1900 to 1973, 26 of the unique regional breeds of pigs and other livestock went extinct, with others surviving only in very small numbers.
To try and preserve pig and other livestock heritage, concerned citizens formed the non-profit Rare Breeds Survival Trust in 1973, which maintains a sort of endangered species list and conservation group for farm animals on the fringe. In addition, farms such as Swift’s Ginger Pig specialize in breeding and reintroducing some of these lines into restaurants and local butcher shops in London and beyond, and in introducing traditional curing techniques through their upcoming book, the Farmhouse Cook Book. “Innovation is awesome and brilliant, but there’s also a dark side,” Swift said. “That’s the history of ham.”
March 27, 2013
In Newfoundland, having a “scoff” (the local word for “big meal”) includes some pretty interesting food items unique to the region: scrunchions (fried pork fat), cod tongues and fishcakes, for example. But perhaps the least appetizing dish, which is traditionally made during the Lenten season—specifically on Good Friday and Easter—is seal flipper pie.
The meal, which originated in the Canadian provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador, tastes as strange as it sounds. The meat is dark, tough, gamey and apparently has a flavor similar to that of hare (appropriate for America’s favorite Easter mascot, no?). Most recipes suggest that the seal meat is coated in flour, pan-fried and then roasted with onions, pork fat and root vegetables like carrots, turnips, potatoes and parsnips. Once the dish has a nice, flaky crust, it is often served with a side of Worcestershire sauce.
While it might be difficult to imagine eating a meal made from something as cute and cuddly as a seal, the dish has a history based in survival. Seals were especially important to Inuit living on the northern shores of Labrador and Newfoundland dating back to the early 18th century when seal meat, which is high in fat protein and vitamin A, was a staple in the early Arctic-dweller’s diet and often prevented explorers from starving or getting scurvy during their hunting travels. (Some Antarctic expeditions like Ernest Shackleton’s Ross Sea party suffered from scurvy for lack of vitamins found in seal meat). Seal hunters used all parts of the seal from their pelts to their fat to light lamps (at one time, London’s street lights were fueled with seal oil), but they couldn’t profit off of the flippers. To save money and to use as much of the animal as possible, they made flipper pie. As the hunting industry grew, seal meat became a major resource for oil, leather and food for locals after the long, harsh winter in these regions.
Because the seal hunt takes place in the spring when the mammals are found near the edge of the ice floes—lasting from mid-March through April—the meat of the animal is most often eaten during the Easter season. But why does seal meat count as “fish” during Lent? According to The Northern Isles: Orkney And Shetland by Alexander Fenton, the meat was deemed Lent-friendly by the Catholic Church as early as the mid 16th century by Olaus Magnus (1490-1557), a Swedish patriot and influential Catholic ecclesiastic:
The people of Burrafirth in Unst sold the skins of seals they caught, and salted the meat for eating at Lent. Olaus Magnus noted in Sweden in 1555 that seal-flesh was regarded by the church in Sweden, though eventually the eating of seal-meat on fast days was forbidden in Norway. Later in time, the eating of seal-flesh went down in the world, and was confined to poorer people, the flesh being salted and hung in the chimneys to be smoked.
By the 1840s—at the apex of the sealing industry in Newfoundland—546,000 seals were killed annually and seal oil represented 84 percent of the value of seal products sold. Since then, a commercial seal hunt has taken place annually off Canada’s East Coast and in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Today, the seal hunting season provides more than 6,000 jobs to fishermen and vastly supplements the region’s economy.
And that’s not to say that the annual seal hunt hasn’t generated some controversy. The practice has been criticized by plenty of animal rights activist groups over the years including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Though, the organization has received its fair share of flack from Newfoundland locals (in 2010, a protester dressed as a seal was “pied” in the face by a man wearing a dog suit).
In 2006, in a live interview with Larry King on CNN, Sir Paul McCartney had a few things to say to Danny Williams, the ninth premier of Newfoundland and Labrador about the seal hunt: “It isn’t hunky dory, it’s disgraceful.” Williams maintained that seal hunting is a sustainable resource for Newfoundland.
The seals hunted in Newfoundland and Labrador are not officially endangered according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. (Though the IUCN considers other species of seal including the Hawaiian Monk Seal and the Mediterranean Monk Seal to be “critically endangered.”) According to the region’s Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, the harp seal population has tripled since 1970 and the total currently stands at 5.6 million animals.
The hunt is closely regulated by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) with quotas and specific rules regarding the method of killing the mammals. Last season, The Telegram, a Canadian newspaper, published an article about a fundraiser for a local sealer organization that commemorates those Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who lost their lives in the 1914 sealing disasters. Seal meat was the featured item on the menu—something many locals argue is the most sustainable protein in the region. (You can watch one of the staff reporters try flipper pie for the first time here).
Despite arguments against the commercial selling of seal products, a certain nostalgia remains baked into the flaky crust of seal flipper pie. According to Annie Proulx’s best-selling 1993 novel The Shipping News, which takes place in the fishing town of Killick-Claw, Newfoundland, the dish is quite tasty, but mostly evokes fond memories for the Newfoundlander characters:
“It’s good. From the shoulder joint, you know. Not really the flippers…The pie was heavy with rich, dark meat in savory gravy.”
The book was later made into a movie of the same title in 2001 starring Kevin Spacey, which references the dish in the soundtrack with a song aptly called “seal flipper pie.” No news on whether the flipper pie Spacey bit into on set was the real deal, but if you’ve got a hankering for the breaded pie, it’s still served in St. John’s, the largest city in Newfoundland and Labrador, at eateries like Chucky’s, which offers a different take on the classic dish. If you want to make it at home without the hassle, the meal is also available frozen and canned at local food stores like Bidgood’s.
One tip if you’re brave enough to try the breaded pie this Easter: When you’re done, remember to say in true Newfoundland fashion: “I’m as full as an egg.” Or maybe that was “Easter egg?”
February 11, 2013
Let’s just say Dominic Episcopo has sunk his teeth into the “meat” of Americana. In his Kickstarter project, “Meat America,” the photographer has paired iconic images from Lincoln to Elvis (“Love Me Tender”) with hunks of red-meat art. He spent six years gathering what he describes as uniquely American images for the coffee table book-to-be “manifesto” that hits shelves later this month.
“I was absorbed in this world of meat. When I was at the supermarket or at a restaurant, I thought, ‘What else could that be besides a hot dog?’,” he says. “I go in with drawings into the supermarket—they know me there. Now they run into the back to grab extra steaks for me to look at.”
According to his Kickstarter page, the series “is a state of mind, an eye-opening and artery-closing tour of America’s spirit of entrepreneurship, rebellion and positivity.” A few more examples of things you’ll find in the book: A “Don’t Tred on Meat” flag, a map of the “United Steaks,” and the Liberty Bell.
Food art is no new concept (Arcimboldo comes to mind); whether it’s a fruit sculpture at some swanky gala or an Edible Arrangement sent to a loved one for their birthday, playing with food is a thing Americans like to do. But what makes meat uniquely American? According to a Food and Agricultural Organization report in 2009, Americans consume 279.1 pounds of meat per person each year. Australia is a close second with 259.3, but compare that to places like the United Kingdom (185 pounds/ person), Croatia (85.8 pounds/ person) or even Bangladesh (6.8 pounds/ person) and it’s clear: Americans like meat. And we like a lot of it, but what about a big ole’ steak connects the mind to cowboys rounding up cattle on the range? Episcopo says he’s not sure.
“I’m not quite as obsessed with meat as you might think,” Espiscopo says. “But I do think these images speak to a meat fetish thing that is uniquely American.”
He continues, citing his Kickstarter page: “This exhibition celebrates our collective American appetite of insurmountable odds, limitless aspiration, and immeasurable success. Though, some may just see it just as a bunch of states, presidents and American icons shaped out of animal products, which is also fine with me.”
Episcopo received his BFA in photography from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and has lived and worked in the city for the last 25 years as a commercial photographer. Most of his “meat” series was produced in his studio inside of his home—a converted 150-year-old abandoned church—he shares with his wife and three-year-old son.
“A sense of humor in photography is hard to pull off and still be taken seriously,” he says. “Weegee’s got that tongue-in-cheekness to it and Penn’s work influenced my straightforward rendering [of the meat].”
To achieve that simple, untouched look for his meat photos he used cookie cutters and a keen eye for the right cut of steak. For the map of the “United Steaks,” he bought a ribeye, made one cut-in, bent one side to create Florida and the rest he shaped with his hands. The lines from the fat of the slab matter.
For the lettering in examples like “Love and Death” based on the famous Philadelphia statue by Robert Indiana, Episcopo uses deli cuts of ham, roast beef, salami and bologna. The settings and surrounding materials all have meaning and play a roll in telling the image’s story, he says. For “Love and Death” he included what he calls a Philadelphia breakfast: A pretzel, some coffee and the cover of the Daily News—all iconic images for the city.
“I can’t just use a cookie cutter to get a shape of Abe Lincoln,” he says. “I wanted it to look like the steak you bought at the supermarket.” Though Episcopo and his family eats only local, organic and grassfed beef, he says there’s a reason he can’t go organic with his images.
“Organic meat is purple,” he says. “I need a big, ruddy robust piece of meat to get the right idea across.”
He tries to maintain political neutrality with his work, but that doesn’t stop the letters from PETA advocates from coming in, he says. But flack for his flank art hasn’t stifled his creative energy around this endeavor.
“I love when I enter an art show and they ask me the medium,” Episcopo says. “How many people get to say meat or steak? Or ‘Meat is my Muse?’”
While we’re on the subject, a few other examples of “meat art” out there:
- Mark Ryden’s “The Meat Show: Paintings about Children, God and USDA Grade A Beef,” will have you gawking at paintings with Colonel Sanders, Abe Lincoln and a big, juicy steak on the same canvas.
- Though Russian artist Dimitri Tsykalov, may not be going for the “Americana” theme with his work, he’s certainly another meat artist worth checking out. Rather than shaping sausages into the state of Texas, his series “Meat Weapons,” evokes a more visceral response featuring full-suited soldiers outfitted in very rare meat-made machine guns and ammo.
- Marije Vogelzang’s “Faked Meat” goes for the meaty look using anything but: Sapicu-wings with dark chocolate, “meat” lollipops, and veggie-made meatballs. The gist: there are a lot of meat substitutes on grocery store shelves.
- A basic search for “meat art” on Pinterest will find you something red and raw to look at (real or not). A personal favorite: This meat-looking mask by artist Bertjan Pot.
- Lest we not forget America’s bacon obsession: This Foulard bacon scarf just may be the perfect Valentine’s Day present for the bacon-loving, love of your life.
June 14, 2012
Food-wise, what will you be doing to fete your father this weekend? This time of year, you start seeing ads promoting grills and all the fun toys that go with them—tongs, brushes, mops, novelty aprons—and an internet search for Father’s Day fare will bring up lots of ideas for how to pull together a meal over an open flame, with the paterfamilias gladly taking the food prep reins. But why do we have this idea that grilling is a guy’s thing?
Globally, it seems that this gendered division of cookery is an American phenomenon. Across cultures, women generally do most of the cooking, period. In some parts of the world—such as Southeast Asia, Malaysia, Serbia and Mexico—you will see female street vendors selling grilled food. The cost of starting up a barbecue business is nominal: charcoal, a grate and you’re good to go.
Is it a matter of territory? At the first barbecue I attended this season, the guys were quick to declare the patio a “men only” area, which elicited a fair bit of eye rolling from the wives and girlfriends in the bunch. In my family, women generally have rein over indoor cooking spaces, but when it comes to outdoor cooking, it’s the guys’ turf. (And when men try to help out on indoor cooking projects, arguments over their technique will likely ensue.)
Meghan Casserly offered her observations in a 2010 Forbes article. There’s the element of danger—fire! sharp tools!—and the promise of hanging out with other guys. But she also finds that the tendency for men to grill is a construct of the mid-20th century and the rise of suburban living. In the United States, family dynamics and attitudes toward parenting were changing and there was an increasing expectation for fathers to spend their free time with their families instead of with their buddies at the local bar. Why not hang out in the back yard? Weber sweetened the prospect of outdoor cookery in the early 1950s when the company introduced the first backyard grill—basically, a streamlined and easy-to-clean fire pit.
In the book Catching Fire: How Cooking Makes Us Human, Richard Wrangham points out that in hunter/gatherer societies, the sexes each seek out different types of food: women forage and handle dishes that require the most preparation, while men go out to find foods that are more difficult to come by—namely, meat. Furthermore, they tend to cook on ceremonial occasions or when there are no women around. “The rule,” Wrangham writes, “that domestic cooking is women’s work is astonishingly consistent.” His observations don’t directly link men to the grill, but it makes one wonder if guys are just somehow primed to cook that way.
January 17, 2012
Everything tastes better with bacon, Sara Perry grandly proclaimed on the cover of her 2002 cookbook. Since then, the love of bacon has grown to surreal heights; it’s become a collective obsession. Should you get the urge, it’s easy to order some bacon ice cream, bacon-infused vodka, bacon soap, or even a monstrosity called the bacon explosion, which is essentially a loaf of bacon-wrapped sausage with yet more bacon.
So what, exactly, could be inspiring this cult of bacon-worship? And why won’t it die?
Well, it’s delicious.
Arun Gupta of The Indypendent explained that bacon has six ingredients with umami (savory) flavor. But that’s always been true, and while we’ve been eating bacon for centuries, the kind of mania that exists in America today is a new trend. A Chicago Mercantile Exchange report from September 2010 found a recent surge in pork belly (where bacon comes from) prices, which have climbed steadily since 1998. Earlier this year, the CME retired frozen pork belly futures after 40 years of trading. In the olden days, when bacon was a seasonal treat, buyers could store frozen pork bellies and sell them once demand was high. But in the past decade, our love affair with bacon has become a constant, year-round obsession. We don’t need pork belly frozen and stored, we want the fresh stuff right now and keep it coming. Now, bacon goes on everything, all the time.
It’s also very, very unhealthy.
In the diet-crazed 1980s and 1990s, bacon was mercilessly demonized. It even made the cover of Time Magazine in 1984 as the face of America’s cholesterol problems. Today, we care a bit less about the calorie content of our food and more about its wholesome origins. Three years after Everything Tastes Better With Bacon was published, Corby Kummer hailed a bacon renaissance driven by the production of artisanal bacon, which is “a perfect cherry-wood brown,” and has a “deep, subtle, lightly smoky flavor.” Standard supermarket bacon, by comparison, is “tinny and one-dimensional.” On the other end of the spectrum, you could argue that its popularity stems from the desire to fly in the face of all the trendy rules of food and health. As Jason Sheehan wrote in Seattle Weekly: “The phrase ‘Everything’s Better With Bacon!’ becomes like a challenge: Oh yeah? Watch what I can do…” Bacon is fatty freedom food. Putting bacon on everything (or, uh, wearing it as lingerie) is a statement of hedonism, pure and simple, a defiant stand against any movement that suggests we moderate what we eat.
It’s more American than apple pie.
Oscar Mayer started packaging pre-sliced bacon in 1924, and soon bacon became a staple of the American family breakfast. As Chris Cosentino, founder of Boccalone: Tasty Salted Pig Parts, pointed out: “You look at classic Norman Rockwell pictures of people at a diner, and what are they eating? Bacon and eggs.” Bacon is the iconic food memory of most people’s childhoods—which makes it the ultimate comfort food. The nostalgia for Mom sizzling up some bacon on Sunday morning—even if it didn’t actually happen to you—is a collective American experience. Bacon’s not just a delicious meat product anymore; it’s a shorthand for the fuzzy golden heyday of our past.
The most bizarre bacon products floating around the Internet:
Bacon mints: Doesn’t this kind of defeat the purpose?
Diet Coke with Bacon: Hold the sugar, add the bacon.
Bacon Kevin Bacon: It was only a matter of time.
Bacon alarm clock: An alarm clock that wakes you with the real aroma of cooking bacon.
Do you have even weirder examples? Leave them in the comments.