I had to be one of the only kids in America who didn’t like bologna. My sister practically lived off the stuff, sandwiched on squishy white bread slathered with Miracle Whip. Actually, pickle and pimento loaf was her favorite. I detested luncheon meats or cold cuts or whatever you want to call these mass-produced, factory-processed meats. However, charcuterie—sausage, ham, bacon, pâté and confit—is another story. Not just because the French name is so much more appealing, but it encompasses meat products that share considerable culinary history and take great skill to make. Even big, bland bologna—or more correctly, Bologna sausage—evolved from Italy’s mortadella.
The motivation originally was thrift, making use of meat byproducts that would have otherwise gone to waste. In an era prior to refrigeration, preservation was important as well. Often the answer was curing with salt and sugar, sometimes drying and smoking as well.
I grew up respecting country ham, a treat that only appeared at holidays or on special occasions. These dry-cured and aged hams were once made everyone, but almost disappeared with the advent of the now more familiar pink, moist stuff that must be refrigerated. The old way of ham making which takes great skill and patience survived in the southern states—Virginia and Kentucky especially noted as the source of fine hams. If you’ve never had it, think prosciutto. They’re made in a similar fashion. The big difference is that prosciutto is consumed raw while its American cousin is soaked, and then boiled or baked.
Country hams are cured for one to three months. They may be smoked—over hickory or red oak—and then are hung to age, ideally for one to three years (most of the hams sold today will be nine months to one year old). Country ham can be sliced and fried and is traditionally served with red eye gravy and biscuits. More often it is soaked for one to two days—this removes some of the saltiness—and then cooked. Then, the rind is removed, the fat trimmed and the finished product glazed in the oven. It’s always served thinly sliced, either cold or at room temperature, but never hot. It’s a long road from farm to table, yet the reward is incomparably fit for the most festive feast. One of my favored suppliers is Finchville Farms in Kentucky. It sells both uncooked and cooked hams.
Moving to Wisconsin, I gained an appreciation for sausage—bratwurst, summer sausage and even Braunschweiger. I also figured out early on, homemade or from a small butcher shop was so much better than the stuff that came hermetically sealed in plastic at the supermarket.
Two of the best trends in eating this past decade are the slow food and local food movements: a rediscovery of vegetables, fruits and meats that are less traveled, less processed and better raised. Increasing numbers of area restaurant highlight local purveyors on their menus. But when the Underground Food Collective opened a restaurant downtown it raised the bar. The new restaurant instantly won rave reviews not only for its imaginative fare, but its homemade sausage and cured meats. Unfortunately, a fire less than a year after the restaurant opened clouded its future. Thankfully this spring, Underground opened a new restaurant on Johnson Street called Forequarter. More good news soon followed with the announcement of another restaurant and butcher shop to come on Williamson Street.
The Underground Butcher opened on November 7 in an historic old blacksmith shop. I couldn’t be happier that it’s only a couple of blocks from my house. On my first visit I wasn’t surprised to find a tempting array of homemade bratwurst and chorizo, salami and pepperoni, dry-cured ham and pancetta. But I was impressed by both the array and quality of the fresh meat: whey-fed, acorn finished pork from Uplands Dairy, dry-aged beef from Fountain Prairie Farms (including a spectacular bone-in rib roast!), lamb from Roller Coaster Farms, dressed whole rabbit and plump poultry from Nami Moon Farms. For a moment, I felt as if I was somehow back at the old Jefferson Market in the West Village that was for years was one of New York’s best butchers. Artesian cheese and its own line of pickles and preserves complete the stock of comestibles. Made to order sandwiches are also available, but I wouldn’t recommend ordering bologna on white bread.
Homemade Tasso Ham Recipe
Tasso is spicy smoked pork often used as a seasoning in jambalaya, gumbo and other Creole and Cajun dishes. Ham is a misnomer since tasso is not made from the hind leg of the pig. It’s not readily available in these parts, but easy to make and worth the extra effort.
5 pork boneless pork butt, cut into 4- to 5-inch lengths about 1-inch thick
4 tablespoons paprika
3 tablespoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons garlic, finely minced
2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon white pepper
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
2 teaspoons cayenne
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Thoroughly mix all the seasoning. Rub the mixture over the surface of the meat pieces—you want a thick coating—about 1/8-inch thick. Wrap each piece in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 3 to 4 days.
Unwrap the meat pieces and place on the rack of a smoker heated to about 160 degrees. Smoke for 2 hours and then increase the temperature to about 190 degrees. Continue to smoke for another 2 hours or until the internal temperature when tested with an instant-reading thermometer registers 150 degrees. If your smoker has a water pan, don’t use it: you actually want the meat to dry out. For the smoking wood, use hickory or oak.
Cool the tasso on a rack until it reaches room temperature. Either store refrigerated wrapped in plastic wrap or frozen in vacuum sealed packages.
Makes 5 pounds tasso