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"...European civilization...has been founded on the pig."
on June 14, 2006
I am on an unholy mission to convert a few Amazonians to the pleasures of do-it-yourself charcuterie. My travels in search of gustatory ecstacy have revealed many a depressing deficiency in American food, one of the most egregious of which is the state of this country's meats. Besides the much-publicized and lamented feed-lot economy that guarantees cheap and flavorless meat for all, we have forfeited the rich, varied, and highly-localized meat traditions of Europe. We have replaced flavor, texture, and local nuance with industrial products that satisfy the huge distributors but leave our tongues and bellies beggared. I am writing a series of reviews that laud a few recent books that do a great job in trying to rectify this impoverishment.
Perhaps the most thorough and comprehensive of the bunch is Jane Grigson's. Over almost 350 dense, detailed pages she covers the hows and whys of charcuterie. Everything from tools and methods to the meat itself is presented in lucid prose, with a fine eye to determining what, exactly, the reader needs to know to make good meat products at home. Sausages of every kind and description, pates, terrines, puddings, saltings, fresh pork preparations, sauces, gallantines... the scope of this book approaches the scope of knowledge a Franch charcutier might possess. Few details escaped Grigson's attention, for her purpose was no humbler than to revive charcuterie in Britain. If she accomplished nothing more than to inspire Fergus Henderson to become the greatest meat-man of his generation, she should rest in peace.
The book has many virtues, readability and enthusiasm not least among them. But its real gift is its comprehensiveness and its almost unique ability to guide the reader through unfamiliar territory. This is a real, fundamental, primary cookbook. Anything more basic would be a farming manual. Which brings me to the point I started to make at the beginning of this screed: our American meat situation is bad because we allow much too much mediation between live meat animals and what we put in our mouths. What Grigson proposes is a hands-on, direct, sensory, real involvement with the raw materials. This, as the great French and Italian food traditions demonstrate so unasailably, is fundamental to great food. When you give up the cheap pleasures of supermarket hamburger and try your hand at basic charcuterie, you will enter a world of memorable pleasures and perhaps rekindle that most basic human value: respect for the sources of what we eat.
You may find my review of Fergus Henderson's The Whole Beast useful in your education as a carnivore.