Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Common Ground in the Meat House

Last weekend, My Beloved and I went out for a walk around the field, during which he suggested we take a peek into the meat house. In case that sounds like a strange location to visit or have on your property, as it did to me when I was first getting to know this family that would become mine, let me assure you that it's a fine thing to have in one's life, even if it is mildly creepy at first.

The meat house is an unassuming, windowless building in the back yard to which I've never paid much attention, the kind in which suburban folk might store yard equipment. Out here on the farm though, it holds meat in production. Back in the fall, my father-in-law purchased two hogs on the hoof from a local farmer, had them slaughtered (also locally), and cured the hams from them himself. They are now aging in the meat house. Basically, father-in-law is making country hams in his back yard, carrying on an old tradition, one of the last vestiges of the food ways with which he was raised.

The hams get plastered with a curing mixture (I think it's a secret recipe, but there's salt, sugar, and yes nitrates involved) before being hung for months to reach the official status of cured. At some point they go into pillowcases to protect them from bugs, probably when the weather is warmer. Accidentally bumping the back of my head against one of the fabric-clad hams while trying to photograph hanging animal haunches speckled with spices and tiny mold spores in a damp, semi-dark hut was the mildly creepy part. I'm over it now. City folk just aren't used to being around dead things, especially dead things with mold that you will later eat.

Country hams have always troubled me that way. They're quite moldy and ancient looking, not appetizing to the eye at all. (Those in the picture look pretty good compared to some I've seen.) On the other hand, I have always loved eating them, if I just don't think about the looks. As with bacon, that salty bite is just so good, even though I am definitely not a saltaholic otherwise. And a little country ham is wonderful flavoring for a mess of beans or a one-dish meal of collard greens and noodles. I even like it fried up (which is a good thing while I'm living here), as long it's soaked beforehand, which mother-in-law always does.

Aside from taste, I admire the work and waiting that go into country hams, especially when they're done the old-fashioned way by our very own family member. There is a deep satisfaction in knowing that one of us made it himself. A better writer than I will have to get all flowery about it. I just know it's true.

I am consistently amazed that my parents-in-law, just one generation ahead of us, grew up with these kinds of country ways that I, being a city girl, thought were gone long before their time. They remember fall hog killing time, drying apples on the porch roof, bathing in a big tub filled with water heated on the wood stove, and taking lunch to school because there was no school lunch program. In rural Kentucky, electrification, road building, and other modernizations were only just happening as they reached adulthood in the late 1950's and early 1960's. Farming was still what almost everyone around here did. If you wanted something different, you took off to Ohio or Indiana or Michigan and got a factory job.

I am also amazed at how quickly change can be incorporated in one generation. My parents-in-law grew up with the Old Ways but seemingly embraced all the New Ways that came along--pesticides, TV, central heat and air, county water, and freezers in the garage of a ranch-style house. Their children grew up pretty much the same way I did in a city far away--at least in terms of technology and conveniences.

Nowadays, a growing number of people are talking about, writing about, and trying to bring back some of the Old Ways, especially those used for food. There is much nostalgia for time honored practices that are harder for us in the short term but better for the environment in the long run. Interestingly enough, I have never heard my parents-in-law wax misty over the good old days. They have never spoken of porch-dried apples as being so sublime that they really should go back to doing that again. They garden every year, but have no snobbish complaints about store bought winter tomatoes. Their freezers are full of their own beef and local pork, but the pantry is full of convenience products.

All those contradictions remind me that industrialization occurred for a reason and in a time of innocence. At the time, cheaper and/or easier must have seemed indubitably better, since no one could guess at the unintended consequences. Maybe the developments that the cognoscenti of today decry as damaging and which my in-laws have taken to without trouble were, back then, a relief from the fluctuations of weather and insects or the deprivations of seasonality or the annoyance of hot, sweaty work. Hindsight may have revealed nature-besting efforts as self-defeating in the long run, but they didn't know that then.

The point here is to avoid judgment of people in whose shoes I have never walked. Fifty years ago there was a lot even the experts didn't know. Fifty years from now it will be the same. We are always doing the best we can with what we have. Being nostalgic for hard work or patience I've never had to endure is just a little patronizing.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for biologically sound farming methods, seasonal produce, minimally processed food, and reduction of resource pillage--all the latest thinking on sustainability. I'm a product of my time, too. I just want to be respectful of opposing beliefs
(especially while I'm living with them), even as I try to live by my own. I want to be enlightened, but not smug. Change can sink in fast and become, we think, the only way to do things, but there's always more enlightenment coming. The apparently benighted have reasons for their ways, whether still valid or not. Those reasons must be respected before they can ever be affected, not that changing family is even my job at all.

Besides, even while my parents-in-law live happily with modern ways and products that I want no part of (pesticides in the garden, store bought white bread, etc), they keep some things on which we can agree. Like a loving spirit and Dad's hams hanging in the meat house. Those are pretty good common ground.

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