For three generations, we have been asleep at the wheel of food culture.
An era of convenience marked by Hot Pockets and pre-breaded, boneless, “individual quality frozen” chicken nuggets has left a cultural vacuum in its wake. Our parents largely lost touch with the origins of food (the farm), the production of food (cooking, baking, butchering, preservation, fermentation), and the family unit that gathered for a meal. In each of these categories, a multi-billion dollar industry of ready-made consumer goods rushed in to fill its place. While we – the children of the children of consumerism – were fed, clothed, housed, and kept healthy by this system of effortless supply. We were also left with an empty, hollow feeling.
That is about to change.
The kids of my generation have grown frustrated with the plastic, use-once-and-throw-away lives of our parents, and we have struck out on new roads to find meaningful things and justification in life. There is no doubt in my mind that today’s environmentalism, alternative energy, alternative agriculture, and private company space flight are all manifestations of this intrinsic urge to cut through a blind existence and discover ourselves.
Food is my business. I cannot shake the fact that I see the world through a cook’s eyes, but food is a huge part of all of our lives. Buying the plastic package takes the knowledge away from us, and cooks of my generation are starting to throw down the packages and climb over them to greater understanding. For cooks, making charcuterie is a fantastic place to start.
So what is charcuterie?
Professional cooks use this blanket description for all the meaty and cured/preserved things that have been handled in complicated ways. You think it’s far away from you, but it’s not: take a look in your fridge.
The ham, the bacon, the hot dogs, the slices of pepperoni on the pizza – and the sausage and Canadian bacon too, come to think of it – are all, albeit humble, examples of charcuterie. On the fancier end of the spectrum, cooks and eaters are also developing a relationship with prosciutto di Parma, bresaola and other salumi, boquerones, and bacalao.
Taken on its own, charcuterie is already cool. When done well, they are each an advanced and carefully tooled execution of a classical standard. This is not the 101 course where you will find “How To Roast The Perfect Chicken” on page 23. Cooks who take on charcuterie have attained a level of mastery in their craft such that they have stopped following recipes and have started writing them. They are well armed, and stepping out into the unknown. These are serious people.
I started Charc Week (Tuesday, July 22 through Saturday, July 26) as a celebration of this craft in San Antonio, and the people who engage in it; but it’s not simply the “charc” I’m after.
Charcuterie is not just a pursuit, but a developmental marker of where your head is. It is a gateway behavior which reveals the doer as being on the threshold of understanding underpinnings, how things go together behind the scenes.
That same person is also reading package labels, mentally reconstructing Cheetos, and mentally disassembling bouillabase. Their explosive curiosity ripples over how to make cheese, and soap, and beer; how to garden sustainably, how to reclaim the heritage our grandparents held, and use these things to move us forward. The cook who is ready to make charcuterie is ready to push down the stale boundaries of our culture, to create a new future for our city and our people.
We are taking knowledge back. We are the new guard, and you can expect great things from us. I have great hope for the future, and our charcuterie is evidence of this. Please come and try it.
*Featured/top image: An assortment of meats ready for service at Restaurant Gwendolyn. Clockwise from bottom: Fermented and air dried hunter’s sausage, cherry smoked bacon, cinnamon red wine bresaola, Pate Campagne of pork and chicken liver with cremini mushrooms, fresh venison country sausage, mortadella with pepitos, and rillettes of venison with oven dried tomato. Photo by Michael Sohocki.