Really. What chance did I have? I was innocently buying 11-plus pounds of pork belly from our friendly neighborhood butcher, Curtis Meats. Whirling around on my heels, waiting for the sweet butcher-shop attendant to retrieve my pork belly, I came to a sudden stop spotting something quite wondrous in the glass-fronted freezer case: a large, eye-catching—obviously—2.5 pound bag of pale yellow chicken feet.
… That’s what I was wondering too. Chicken feet? And, then, since I was in a country butchery that wasn’t about to waste a single 1/4-pound of anything sellable, and they were lodged cheek-and-jowl (pardon the perfect! phraseology) next to some pigs’ cheeks, jowls, and feet, I rethought my response and realized why, of course, they had a frozen bag of chicken feet.
“Oh, those?” the nice butcher attendant replied with a small conspiratorial chuckle, “Yes, they are chicken feet although sales will start to fall off about now with it getting warmer outside…People just don’t feel the need to make as much stock, I guess.”
“Oh, that’s what I was going to ask next. What they make with them. Are they good for that?”
“I don’t know personally but given how many we sell—Bags and bags and bags of them all winter long— I’d say so. Supposed to be delicious, actually. Besides, they make great conversation starters."
“Hmm… I’ll have to try them sometime. Have a nice weekend,” I responded. Paid the $40 for my future bacon and left.
I almost made it halfway to my minivan—yep, I’m that middle-aged man who drives around a minivan replete with video player, rear quad seats and, less conventionally, trailer hitch—when once again, I spun on my heels and returned inside.
“Couldn’t pass them up after all!” she said, laughing. “I do wan to warn you, though, to be careful of those nails.” She pointed to a very long, shrink-wrapped chicken toenail. “They’re surprisingly sharp and make a nasty cut.”
Now, I'll get to those chicken feet and their long nails in a day or two. Promise.
First, though, I got to get back to that pork belly. I know it’s a lot but I had two very good reasons: 1) I made bacon last fall only using 3 pounds. My kids, a couple of their friends, my wife and I devoured all of it in a matter of hours… Yes, it’s really that good—a salty, smoky sweet treat. 2) I’d bartered for the maple syrup by offering Melissa and Scott Arndt, friends of mine who also happen to own a syrup company called Maine Gold a couple pounds of bacon. I did this because I wanted to make my bacon as locally as possible and, more importantly, I happened to drive alongside of Melissa in her Maine Gold pickup truck while on the way to Curtis Meats. The topper, though, is that they make and sell a variety of grades, including my favorite, Grade B, which they have smartly decided to label as “robust.” it’s strong, ever-so-slightly smokey flavor would be perfect.
As you can imagine, I drove home quite giddy, actually giggling a number of times over the perfectness of my chicken-feet purchase and the superior locales of my soon-to-be bacon. Back home I popped the feet into my freezer and immediately began rubbing the curing salt over the two slabs of fatty meat.
The recipe I was following comes from American Cookery. Ever hear of it? If not, don’t feel bad. It was published in 1796. However, shame on you because you should have. If you’re a chef or cook, it’s like being a revolutionary who hasn’t heard of the Declaration of Independence or a comic book fan who hasn’t heard of Stan Lee. According to the Historic American Cookbook Project of Michigan State University, “The importance of this work cannot be overestimated. Its initial publication was, in its own way, a second Declaration of American Independence.”
That’s a pretty bold statement but seeing that it’s the very first cookbook written by an American using American ingredients and many wholly American recipes, it’s not even a bit hyperbolic. Before Amelia Simmons, the cookbook’s author, we were using British and European cookbooks reprinted in the Colonies. With wooden spoon in hand and her apron flying in the wind, she extolls her fellow American females, whether they be rich or poor, to rise up and know their food--and have an opinion: “By having an opinion and determination, I would not be understood to mean an obstinate perseverance in trifles, which borders on obstinacy--by no means, but only an adherence to those rules and maxims which have stood the test of ages, and will forever establish the female character, a virtuous character…”
How can you resist that?
If you take your cooking seriously, or even just affectionately, you gotta know your American Cookery. I’ve gotten to know it so well, I have, in fact, a bit of a thing for the spunky cook. She was both a great cook and a fiercely independent woman. And she had a lot of sass: Best of all, she knew her frickin’ food. The best breeds or varieties. How to raise or grow it. And, of course, how to cook it. Listen to her on the very first page--this is a cookbook, mind you, not a livestock guide: “Beef. The large stall fed ox beef is the best, it has a coarse open grain, and oily smoothness; dent it with your finger and it will immediately rise again; if old, it will be rough and spungy (sic), and the dent remain.”
Come to think of it, if a person were to punctuate that thoughtfully, her words were outright poetic:
The large stall fed Ox beef is the best
It has a Coarse open grain.
And oily smoothness
Dent it with your finger;
It will immediately rise Again.
If old, it will be rough and spungy
And the Dent remain
And what happens to be her very first recipe? Bacon. So, Ha! Told you we’re connected (that salt thing I wrote last week was NOT a recipe).
Also, she was all about making it yourself, of course, and being local. She doesn’t tell you to use the bacon you bought at the market--like the descendants of her book (Joy of Cooking and Good Times come to mind) would. She tells you how to make the bacon first and then puts it in a recipe.
She’s also, obviously, into buying local which is further proof we’re connected through time (I don’t feel like I’m cheating on my wife with this relationship; she, after all, has her own “across time” crush on Jamie, the hunky Outlander hero). Wasn’t I using salt I’d made, syrup my friends created from Maine trees, and meat compliments of a pig that grew up just down the road? The only thing that was from afar was the 2 teaspoons of pink, or curing, salt. It’s dyed pink, by the way, so as not to be confused with regular table salt. It has sodium nitrate in it which is particularly good at inhibiting bacterial growth and is easier to come by than saltpeter--what Amelia would have used..
Anyway, now I just have to find a stone to touch so I can leap back to 1796…
Bacon (stage one)
If you want to follow along in my trip through time get yourself some pork belly. It’s often sold in two parts--each around 5 ½ pounds… Yes, the typical belly, or sometimes known as side meat, is 11 pounds. I bought both strips but just one is more than enough for most families; it freezes really well.
So, this week we’ll cure it and seven days or so from now I’ll tell you how to smoke it. If you don’t have a handy pig farm or butcher even the meat department in a big enough grocery store should have it.
1 tablespoon pink salt
½ cup sea salt
1 cup syrup (whatever you prefer: maple, molasses, corn--if you try it with honey please let me know how it works)
1 2-gallon ziploc
Rub your belly with the curing salt. The most important reason for this salt, besides inhibiting bacterial growth that is, is the color it imparts on the meat. It allows the fresh red color to remain. Without pink salt, the bacon still works but it turns a gray, truly distasteful color.
Next, simply put the pork in the plastic bag, and pour in the salt and syrup. You can mix it together first, of course.
I let it sit on the counter for a few hours, turning it frequently both to speed up the curing process and make sure the brine is covering everything.
Lastly, put it in the fridge and be sure to turn it once or twice a day.
We’ll smoke it next week--as it needs to brine for about a week. The time is approximate and way shorter than Amelia’s recipe which needed 6-8 weeks because she would cure a very thick shoulder, not the thinner, faster belly.