The Life and Death of a Pig
Herb Eckhouse’s prosciutto is so good that when Robert Parker tasted it, he called it called “stunning” and ordered a $3,000-pig’s worth of cured pork.
So it’s hard to believe that Eckhouse is a former seed-company executive with a Harvard MBA who, just five years ago, had not cured a single pig’s leg.
“Prosciutto making is magical, it’s mystical, it’s alchemy,” he says, “but people have done this for thousands of years. It’s not that difficult. It’s a robust process.”
The curing of a typical American ham can be appetite draining; the meat is injected with saltwater and the meat inflates like a tire being filled with air.
Contrast that with the well-regarded dry-cured hams of Parma, Italy, and the south of Spain. There, the hind legs of pigs are rubbed with salt and pretty much left alone to dehydrate for months. The art is in the variables: temperature, humidity, length of aging.
These are the techniques that Herb and Kathy Eckhouse are employing at their plant in Norwalk, Iowa. The irony is that their company, La Quercia, is, well, preserving the traditional approach by employing air jets, fans, heater, humidifiers and dehumidifiers.
And their results, dubbed prosciutto Americano, are rivaling prosciutto di Parma and Spanish jamón ibérico. The products of the couple’s three-year-old plant have drawn praise from the likes of Mario Batali and Alice Waters.
Cured pork first enticed Eckhouse decades ago. Kathy’s parents would take the couple to Pig by the Tail, a shop just down the street from Waters’ restaurant in Berkeley, Calif. A poster from the shop still hangs next to Herb’s desk at the plant.
Eckhouse’s experiments began in February 2003 when he salted four hams, put them in a silver two-door refrigerator in his garage for six months and then hung them in his finished basement for another three. Eckhouse had moved the white acoustic ceiling tiles so he could hang the meat from hooks in the wooden floor joists.
He checked the drying pig legs almost daily. Taking the room’s temperature. Adjusting fans. Opening and closing the air vent in the ceiling. Checking each ham for mold. Letting in fresh air through a window. After one ham had been gnawed by mice, he put paper plates on the strings holding the meat to block the vermins’ decent. He kept his records in an Excel spreadsheet.
First thing one morning, during the summer three years ago, Eckhouse went down to check his second batch of hanging meats. For whatever reason, he didn’t turn the light on as he began his daily machinations. The cool, moist air came in with the sunlight through the basement window well. And then, as he moved within a foot of one ham, he saw the undulating white mass.
When he realized it was his precious ham crawling with maggots, Eckhouse screamed.
He bolted upstairs, implored his wife Kathy and their three children not to go into the basement and, eventually, settled his nerves. Then he returned to the cellar, found and repaired a hole in the window screen, cut out the infested meat and left the remaining ham to hang another three months.
“That’s when Kathy decided we were truly nuts,” Eckhouse said.
He did not feed this prosciutto to Waters, who tried a successive test batch, but did feed it to his son and maybe to his wife.
“I don’t know that I knowingly ate any,” said Kathy.
It was another lesson for Eckhouse, who had begun his learning process in Parma, Italy, two decades earlier when he took charge of Pioneer Hybrid’s Italian operation. It was during his three and a half years there that he first tasted that city’s world-class prosciutto.
It also changed the way the family ate. They found the food both delicious and incredibly simple and straightforward. The Eckhouses learned that complex recipes weren’t necessary as long as the ingredients were good.
“You don’t want to be elaborate in your production,” he said he learned, “but elaborate in your procurement.”