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Flash in the Pan

Mired in mystery meat


Have you ever wondered why Italy came up with prosciutto, while America created the Oscar Mayer Weiner?

The difference between that most delicate of hams and that most mysterious of meats can be found in how each respective culture prepared for winter.

Italy is to cured meats what the Galapagos Islands are to Darwin’s finches: a place where diversity exploded in response to a variety of differing local microclimates.

Tuscan prosciutto, for example, is known as prosciutto saporito, which means salty, while the proscuitti of Parma and San Danielle are known as dolce, or sweet.

Both saporito and dolce proscuitti contain salt, but the Tuscan saporito variety is extra salty to compensate for the fact that Tuscan bread is made without salt. (Salt-free Tuscan bread is another story, relating to a baker protest against a Papal salt tax hundreds of years ago.) Tuscan prosciutto is also cured with juniper berries, fennel, garlic, pepper, rosemary, wine and vinegar, a distinct set of ingredients that local meat curers have arrived at as the best for their purposes.

Each region-specific prosciutto has its own story, built upon the unique social history and landscape from which it came. But they all share the rhythm and purpose of slaughtering pigs before winter. 

A community-wide systematic approach to food storage ensures the village can survive the winter, a point underscored by a 13th century Tuscan law stating that all pig slaughters must take place in the final weeks before Christmas (as the curing process can take 9–18 months, these pigs were destined for future winters, but the point remains).

Oscar Mayer, now owned by Kraft, first emerged in Chicago’s meatpacking district in the early 1900s, when animals from all over North America were shipped to Chicago, where more meat was processed than anywhere else in the world.

Meats of myriad origins were combined in mammoth grinders, where all historical traces of the meat were erased and a profound form of mystery meat was created.

While prosciutto amplifies the subtle nuances behind regional variations in culture and climate, the Oscar Mayer product line homogenizes regional variation into a mixed message that says nothing about where it originated.

Not only did these homogenized meat products replace the finer alternatives in the national diet, they actually stunted the evolution of better alternatives, preventing them from ever developing.

Small towns, instead of figuring out ways to preserve their local farm-raised meats, instead shipped them off to Chicago and used the money they earned to buy their Oscar Mayer mystery meats.

Italy was fortunate enough to have already developed the likes of prosciutto, and other cured meats, long before Chicago was even settled. But here in the New World the trajectory of culinary evolution was still in its infancy when it was co-opted by the industrial forces behind the Oscar Mayer phenomenon. So we never had the impetus to come up with anything better.

This sad story was repeated many times, and many other foods that could have been great never came to be, as the availability of industrially produced foods allowed Americans to relax in their preparations for winter. When I was in Italy I bought a jar of preserves made from alpine strawberries and rose petals. But here in the New World, instead of putting up stashes of strawberry preserves we’ve got Smuckers and jet-lagged strawberries from south of the border. And there likely are other epicurean casualties of industrial food that don’t even have names, as they were nipped in the bud before they could begin to blossom.

In order to re-spark homegrown culinary evolution and create a sophisticated cuisine that reflects the many diverse regions of home, we’ll need to revive our relationship with winter.

Doing so would not only create better eats, it would help shrink a stumbling block that has confined many budding locavores to the minor leagues in recent years—the question of what to do when the local veggies stop growing and farmers’ markets shut down for the season.

Indeed, your success at living the local foods dream is determined by what you eat in winter. That’s the ultimate locavore
litmus test.

And while many dedicated locavores can and do pass this test in sumptuous fashion, for this to catch on with Joe the Plumber—for local, quality foods to become as culturally accepted as prosciutto is in Italy—this competence has to trickle up to the community level and become established there.

Luckily the knowledge exists, because Oscar Mayer’s influence wasn’t enough to completely erase the information contained in 10,000 family recipes and traditions. But reviving your culinary relationship with winter means changing your relationship with summer, and using the growing season as a time to acquire your raw materials and convert them to tasty storage forms. It means less hiking, and more canning. It means experimentation, and touching base with your parents and grandparents.

It’s a recipe for cultural survival, and progress. Because if you give Joe the Plumber an Oscar Mayer Weiner, you feed him for a day. But it takes a village to feed him prosciutto all winter.

Ask Ari: He got game

Q: All the red meat I eat is wild game—deer, antelope, elk, bighorn and bear. I always try to get my animals skinned, quartered and into a refrigerator as quickly and cleanly as possible. I double-wrap it and eat it, or give it away within a year, so I’ve never experienced freezer burn. I’m careful how I shoot animals, and rarely damage much meat. I thought all of my game meat was excellent, although I’ve developed a preference for richer tasting meat, which usually means more mature animals, or animals like bighorn or elk rather than deer.

My question is: What do people mean when they complain that some game meat tastes “gamey”? Are they just not used to the taste of game meat, so it tastes unusual to them? Have I developed a fondness for the flavor of meat, which the majority of the population would regard as gamey? Or are some people messing up their game meat by the way they handle it?

—Got Game

A: Are people calling your meat gamey? I’m going to assume not, because most of the time what people react to are the flavors of poor meat management. And all of the precautions you described suggest your meat is well cared for.

Another source of so-called gamey flavors is the muskiness of males in rut. The best way to deal with this is to cut off the scent glands from the lower hind legs as soon as possible.

Beyond that, even with an unspoiled, not-in-the-rut animal some people will object to the very flavor of the meat itself. This is just a personal choice, much the way some people dislike lamb.

But if you are concerned that your meat might be gamey, beyond the normal flavor of the meat, then I suggest you drop off a package of that bighorn sheep for me at the Independent, preferably backstrap or hindquarter. I’ll be happy to give you my expert opinion.

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