Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Some pork in the garage, the beef being corned

In most of my work as a scholar, I am reluctant to embrace the notion - increasingly popular in so many academic and popular discourses – that food is an expression of "identity." This all-purpose, motley, grab-bag of a concept, identity, is so thoroughly over-used, amorphous in its content, and simplistic in its analytical value (Q: "Why do the Bulgarians eat feta?" A: "It must be their Bulgarian identity."  Think about that one…) that I find it wearying to read yet another nostalgic recitation of the importance of this or that repast to the endearing, enduring spirit of my people   Don't get me wrong, as an anthropologist, I'm deeply committed to the importance of understanding what we eat and how we eat, the with whom where and when of eating (i.e., "Food") as a cultural practice. But not all of cultural practice amounts to an attempt to assert my allegiance to "people like us" in all our Italian-American, Asian-American, Mexican-American, African-American hyphenated glory.

Which brings me to corned beef. As a pushing-50 Jewish man with direct ancestral ties to the Tri-State area (parents born and raised in Newark, myself born and barely able to recall living in NYC), how can I deny that my attraction to a fine corned beef sandwich is anything other than a manifestation of that ancient longing to bond with the members of my tribe? Believe me, you'd understand if you'd met the members of my particular neck of the tribe. Yes, I have indelible recollections of corned beef on rye, the meat's fine corral-color, with an iridescent sheen.  The texture both course and supple, the elastic tissues of the brisket grain pulling apart, and the outer layer of beef fat (not too fat, but not too lean) melding in each bit. Yes, I know corned beef, and have eaten many a finely shaved corned beef sandwich at delis from New York to Cleveland, to Chicago and LA.
But that's the thing – here I am wanting to corn my own beef, well the beef of a local rancher anyway. And this is about the most un-Jewish thing I can think of.  I had my very own Yiddish speaking immigrant grandmother – my bona fides are impeccable.  And I devoured plate upon plate of her homemade kreplach, fried in a little schmaltz, sometimes in a bowl of soup. I acquired a taste for her gutsy halupkis, stuffed cabbage, sweet-and-soured with gingersnaps and lemon juice in crushed tomatoes.  All good.  But corned beef -  that's what you get at a DELI.  Rye bread, mustard, maybe Russian dressing, that's it. Homemade corned beef? For this we sent you to college and graduate school?
The truth is, I haven't had a corned beef sandwich in many years (kreplach and halupkis even longer). I'm certainly not going to settle for just any old corned beef; nor do I have a desperate longing for the corned beef of my youth. I'm an adventurous eater, and I remember the new things I've just eaten much more than the sepia toned victuals of my parentage.  But curing a corned beef in my fridge, hanging guanciale in my garage, whipping a paté into a well-spiced spread, this IS my cultural métier, my modest effort to enhance the world I inhabit.  As my friend, Judy Farquhar, has eloquently written, cooking and eating, the what who when where and why of how we do our food, is a way of "crafting the good life" and giving value to the world we share with others, an excellent characterization of culture itself.

Now onto the meat.  Here's the latest pic of my guanciale, two weeks after hanging. 

I think it needs a few more days before it's ready to be sliced and fried with  - oh, some collards (collards and pork jowl, that traditional Yiddish-American delicacy) or something like that.

And the corned beef, the Charcutepalooza challenge of the month.  Here's how I'm doing it.  This shows the mixture that gets boiled as "pickling spice." 

If you look at three o'clock on the plate, that's a cinnamon stick followed (counter clockwise) by juniper berries, ground ginger, cloves, bay leaf (like, 2 is plenty), allspice.  The center of the plate is black pepper, and at six o'clock: Pink Salt.  Which is to say, saltpeter, or nitrates.  Not everybody would use these, and I can't recommend a nitrate laden diet, but for the one corned beef I'm going to make this season, ok, I'm going to use it.  It keeps the brisket that lovely rosy color I waxed on about. Plus, I got a great story out of it.  I couldn't find pink salt ANYWHERE in town – the one butcher who usually stocks it was out. But I know my friends at Neal's Deli make some great housemade corned beef and pastrami, so I stopped by to ask if they had any pink salt.  Sheila Neal was kind enough to give me a quarter cup of the stuff in a plastic container, and turn me on to an online distributor should I have a sudden desire to pump my food full of nitrates.  The quarter cup may be a lifetime supply.

So, you boil up this mixture in 2 quarts of water, a whole cup of salt and half a cup of brown sugar.  Cool the mixture down to 45º after the salt and sugar have thoroughly dissolved, and then place the brisket – like so – into the container you want to keep it in.

This will sit, with a plate on top of the meat to keep it submerged, in the fridge for 10 days. Turn it once half way through the cure. After which, boil the brisket in ample water, and then simmer for a few hours.  Can't show you that yet, as I just put it up to cure yesterday. A report will follow when it's boiled and sliced.



  1. I completely agree about the overuse of "Identity," whether in film criticism or discussion of cultural practices. The corned beef looks amazing, I'd really love to try my hand at curing meat. Nothing like brisket to remind me why I love Jewish holidays.

  2. Corned beef is probably the easiest not to screw up - the whole thing is done in the fridge, and then cooked- unlike the stuff that dries out, that can be a lot more variable in quality. Go for it!