Winter food theorem


by Ari LeVaux

Why is it that Italy invented prosciutto, while America created the Oscar Mayer weiner? In a word: winter. America lost touch with an important part of winter before we had a chance to invent our version of prosciutto.

The difference between that most delicate of hams and our most mysterious of meats lies in the differences – during the formative years of the two products – in how their respective cultures prepared for winter.

By “prepare for winter,” I mean the many ways that northern-hemisphere dwellers have, by necessity, learned to preserve food that was grown, hunted and gathered during the warmer months, to be eaten during the less productive cold months. Survival was the impetus, but humans, being artists at heart, have found ways to make the results beautiful as well – flavor being one of the most profound forms of beauty.

Italy is to cured meats what the Galapagos Islands are to Darwin’s finches: a place where diversity exploded in response to myriad microclimates, producing a bewildering assortment of delectable ways to store meat.

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

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 bakers’ protest against a Papal salt tax, hundreds of years ago.) Tuscan prosciutto is cured with juniper berries, fennel, garlic, pepper, rosemary, wine, and vinegar, ingredients that local meat curers have concluded best suits their purposes.

Each region-specific prosciutto has its own story, built upon the unique geographic elements of the microclimate from which it sprang. But all share the rhythm and purpose of slaughtering pigs before winter.

A community-wide approach to food storage was integral to a village’s survival in temperate climates, a point underscored by a 13th-century Tuscan law stating that all pig slaughters must take place in the final weeks before Christmas, ensuring an orderly winter-curing schedule. As the curing process can take 9 to 18 months, these pigs would be destined for future winters, but also serve as a “piggy bank” of sorts that could be tapped prematurely in times of need.

While few cultures can compete with Italy’s diversity of cured meats, other cuisines have their own strategies. And the way a society cures its meats reflects on its cuisine in general.

Bhutan, for instance, is a tiny Himalayan nation with a culinary aesthetic that’s much simpler but no less flavorful or soulful than Italy’s. The Bhutanese version of prosciutto is called phag-sha: strips of pork hung outside in the icy breeze of winter. Phag-sha translates as “dried in cold air.”

American cured meats reflect the approach to food that came of age along with the nation. Oscar Mayer, now owned by Kraft, first emerged in Chicago’s meatpacking district in the early 1900s – a time when more meat was processed in Chicago than anywhere else in the world. Meats of myriad origins were combined in mammoth grinders, where all trace of provenance was erased.

Prosciutto amplifies and displays subtle regional variations with nuance and grace, while the Oscar Mayer product line, by contrast, homogenizes regional variation into a mixed message that says nothing about where it came from.

New Worlders were just getting familiar with the culinary possibilities of our landscape, and the trajectory of our culinary evolution was still in its infancy, when it was co-opted by Oscar Mayer and company.

These homogenized meat products did more than replace the finer alternatives in the national diet. They stunted the development of better alternatives before they could even emerge. By the same token, if ancient Italians had access to supermarkets, the world would not have prosciutto.

To be sure, America has its preserved-meat treasures, like Virginia Ham, pulled pork and bacon. Some would argue that an all-beef kosher Chicago frank should be held up as a great American culinary achievement as well. Although I consider it more a high-end Oscar Mayer weiner, it’s no soppressata.

When I was in Italy recently I bought a jar of alpine strawberry preserves with rose petals, a beautiful combination of two regional products. I’ve never seen rose petals in Smucker’s.

A revived relationship with winter would do a lot to re-spark homegrown culinary evolution and create a sophisticated cuisine that reflects the many diverse regions of home. Doing so would do more than create better eats. It would help dissolve a stumbling block that has confounded many budding locavores in recent years: namely, the question of what to do when the local veggies stop growing and farmers markets shut down for the season. True success at living the local-foods lifestyle is determined by what you eat in winter. That’s the ultimate locavore litmus test.

Luckily, the necessary knowledge still exists, in recipes and traditions from many corners of the land. But reviving our relationship with winter means changing our relationship with summer as well, and using the growing season as a time to acquire raw materials and convert them to tasty storage-friendly forms. It means food processing and experimentation must become widespread summertime phenomena. This newfound competence has to trickle up from the household level to the community level. And if it does – and here’s the ringer – people have to be willing to pay more for better product.

If you give a man an Oscar Mayer weiner, you feed him for a day. It takes a village to feed him prosciutto all winter. And that’s a village worth living in. A village that survives the winter bonds in summer, its citizens enjoying a high quality of life. It’s time for America to jump on that bandwagon, and put some pigs in the bank. •



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