“I believe that one of the most dignified ways we are capable of, to assert the reassert our dignity in the face of poverty and war’s fears and pains, is to nourish ourselves with all possible skill, delicacy, and ever increasing enjoyment. And with our gastronomical growth will come, inevitably, knowledge and perception of a hundred other things, but mainly of ourselves. Then Fate, even tangled as it is with cold wars as well as hot, cannot harm us.” -M.F.K. Fisher, 1942
I have an afternoon free and I’m in town, so I’m at a farm. We carry bags of feed to the pigs, find shiitakes on the logs by the creek, move a chicken tractor. I’ll take any opportunity to be involved in the work on a farm or in a kitchen: the rituals of food are sacred, the rituals celebrate and bring us closer to the source of what sustains us. It matters to do what is important when you can. Be mindful when you’re walking, pray with your footsteps and your hands, connect with the divine as you wake dry yeast to life with water and sugar and raise the breathing dough into bread, celebrate the divine in one another as you break bread with your beloveds and with strangers. Harvest wild foods and be grateful. Knowledge shared is a kind of prayer.
We know ourselves by the stories that connect us with the purpose of what we do and the people who did these things before us. As Martin Prechtel writes, our work as humans is to live beautiful lives that honor the source of life, and particularly in these days of decline, to reconnect with the traditions of our indigenous ancestors (we all had indigenous ancestors): to become ourselves ancestors worth descending from. For this reason, I have grown San Marzano tomatoes and canned them up as the red sauce that is the blood of Sicilian ancestors, and I have sat in the light of winter and traced needle and thread through the stitches my grandparents placed in the quilts that warm the beds, repairing the wear on the stitched fabric made from my mother’s worn-out clothes, and I will pass these quilts and these stories on. The connection and the story are sacred.
Comfortable in the afternoon light, he’s pulled from the fridge bags of pork jowl, remnants of the pigs he raises. I recall my grandmother’s baked pork jowl and pinto beans and collard greens, the ritual lunch on New Year’s Day, a southern Appalachian tradition: the collard greens and pinto beans represent the money that will come to you in the year, food is fertility. With the food came the admonition that what you do on New Year’s Day you do for the rest of the year; time is a fractal, recursive, and this is honored in tradition.
I’m sitting at his kitchen table, sipping a beer in the warm afternoon, listening to the sudden heavy rain outside, watching as he slices through the slab of meat with a small knife, and I think maybe each knife is his favorite knife: many of them made by friends, handed down from friends, populating the kitchen with their stories.
He’s pulling out the sliver of jawbone and the small glands, tossing the raw meat of the jowl into a pan – pink, juicy, flabby. There’s a digital scale over to one side of the kitchen, and an old three-beam scale on the other side, and a small calculator. He’s weighing each pork jowl on the newer digital scale, calculating the salt and spice with a memorized ratio, and weighing the salt and spice into his grandmother’s brandy snifter placed on the triple-beam scale that belonged to his father.
The pork jowls are bagged up with their salt and spice and slid back into the fridge, an equilibrium cure. Whoever receives them will cook and prepare not only a meal but a moment, a story, a slice of death-become-life and the alchemy of salt and time and the result of the work that is sacred.
Laying on another counter is a prosciutto, a whole shoulder-and-leg-and-foot, dry and compressed and dark, cured with salt and hung since winter. It looks like exactly what it is: the carefully preserved part of an animal, recalling the mummified bodies of a saint, sacred relics, ancient traditions. He watched this boar as it was born, he fed it and raised it up, killed it, cut the body apart, built the salting box from old barn wood and the smoking boxes from old restaurant refrigerators, and hung the shoulder in his workshop through the winter. This is the body, given to you.
Traditionally it’s the ham and not the shoulder cured for prosciutto, and traditionally not an intact boar: unless castrated, the fat of the boar will carry an intense aroma of musk and ammonia, a flavor that, to some, ruins the meat.
He opened the prosciutto a few nights back to share with friends who will be moving away soon, a communion, another layer of story to the food that sustains us. Today he’s cutting carefully into the inner meat of the shoulder and the leg, pulling away tissue-thin slices of the clean and compressed layers of fat and meat. Blood-dark red outside, as pink as your inner lip inside and marbled with smooth white. The outer crust of the prosciutto is dry and salty, the meat inside is soft and sweet. The leg laid out on the counter, although transformed by salt and time into food, bears none of the artifices we usually see from the nourishment of our over-processed lives. Here is the foot, and here is the bone in the shoulder that connected this leg to the animal, and the muscles that moved, and here is the flesh cut away like a surgery, like an anatomical drawing, the grain of the muscle and the clean lines of fat, and the knife sliding in, and his hands inside the body of this animal, and the insides on the outside where they should never be. The intimacy is raw and disturbing and honest.
Soon I taste a piece that carries the taint from the uncut boar: the thin sliver of meat is soft and sweet on my tongue, salt at the front of the flavor; and as I chew, the fat releases a punch of sharp musk straight up my nose from the back of my mouth, and I recognize it as the fragrance of an unwashed and undeodorized body, intensely male. Paired with the sweetness from the alchemy of cured meat, the flavor profile now has an edge and an intense complexity.
I imagine this salt-cured boar shoulder described by a sommelier in the poetry of wine, I imagine it marketed as “like bacon that tastes like raunchy fucking,” because that’s what it is, right there on the table and on my tongue, the intimacy of the inside of the body split open and bare, and the alchemy of salt and time. Too much salt or too much time will kill you just as well as having none of either, but there’s nourishment and poetry in the balance, in the equilibrium, in the cure.