Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse is perhaps the most flawed of all of Austen’s female protagonists. Even though she is beautiful and witty and smart, many Austen fanatics dislike her, calling her jealous and self-centered, snobbish, obstinate, insensitive. Out of curiosity, I took a poll amongst my Jane Austen-loving friends, asking which of her characters they most disliked, and more than half of them said Emma. This shocked me, especially because of the existence of the insipid Fanny Price! I can’t help but think that Cher Horowitz has something to do with this.
I love Emma and I’ll tell you why: when it comes to pork, Emma knows her stuff. Emma is not my favorite Austen novel, but it has by far my most favorite food scene of all of them. Two pages of the novel are taken up with the description of what to do with a newly-killed pig from their property. Emma’s father, ever the worrier, is overwhelmed by the task of sending pork to a neighbor, but Emma’s complete confidence on the matter immediately puts him at ease. The scene is a rare glimpse into the unglamorous everyday tasks of running a household in Jane Austen’s time, a time when even a woman as priviledged as Emma would have been knowledgable about the raising, killing and preserving of her family’s livestock.
(There are pictures of a whole ham following, if you are averse to those kinds of things I wouldn’t continue)
“Now we have killed a porker, and Emma thinks of sending them a loin or a leg; it is very small and delicate—Hartfield pork is not like any other pork—but still it is pork—and, my dear Emma, unless one could be sure of their making it into steaks, nicely fried, as ours are fried, without the smallest grease, and not roast it, for no stomach can bear roast pork—I think we had better send the leg—do not you think so, my dear?”
“My dear papa, I sent the whole hind-quarter. I knew you would wish it. There will be the leg to be salted, you know, which is so very nice, and the loin to be dressed directly in any manner they like.”
“That’s right, my dear, very right. I had not thought of it before, but that is the best way. They must not over-salt the leg; and then, if it is not over-salted, and if it is very thoroughly boiled, just as Serle boils ours, and eaten very moderately of, with a boiled turnip, and a little carrot or parsnip, I do not consider it unwholesome.”
In her letters, Austen herself writes often of the livestock kept at Steventon where she lived with her family. In one letter she tells her sister, Cassandra, about providing a neighbor with pork from their land, much like Emma and her father discuss in the novel: “My father furnishes him with a pig from cheesedown; it is already killed and cut up, but it is not to weigh more than nine stone; the season is too far advanced to get him a larger one. My mother means to pay herself for the salt and the trouble of ordering it to be cured by the sparibs, the sous, and the lard.”
Each member of the Austen family is involved at some level in the keeping and processing of livestock, something which wouldn’t have been at all uncommon at the time or unladylike to discuss.
Even though I’m grateful for the advances that we’ve made in refrigeration since 1815, I wish that we were still as connected to where our food–especially our meat–comes from. I think about this daily, especially when I’m at work and someone “eww”s what I’m doing behind the butcher counter but is okay with buying a pound of sliced ham or three pounds of ground beef.
Today we are going to cure a ham, and we are going to do it as close to the way someone in 1815 would have done it as possible. I won’t be able to show you the end product for a couple of months, but I’ll keep you updated on our ham’s progress, and by summer we’ll be slicing it paper-thin and putting it on everything.
- 1 whole ham– skin, tail, sirloin, and thigh-bone removed. Keep the knee-cap and hock intact for hanging. Mine weighed 19.2 pounds after this process. Refer to the table entitled “cure #1″ here for how a guide on how much pink salt to add by weight
- .80 oz. pink salt (see note above)
- 2 pounds kosher salt
- 6 oz sugar
- 1 1/2 oz whole peppercorns
- 1 Tbl cloves
- 1 Tbl juniper berries
- 20 bay leaves
- 20 sprigs fresh thyme
Have your butcher skin and tunnel-bone your ham (be patient, this can take a minute), leaving the knee-bone and hock intact for hanging. If the pig is freshly-killed you will have to hang it for 3 days in the refrigerator over a bucket to drain any excess liquid. The pigs at our shop have already gone through this process before coming to us so I skipped this step. With a mallet or baseball bat give the ham a few good whacks to release as much liquid as possible (if you’re having a bad day this is a great great thing to get to do). Add all of your ingredients together and mix them around until they are all combined. Rub your ham very thoroughly with the cure, making sure to really get it inside of the cavity where the thigh bone was. Put two handfuls of the cure on the bottom of a heavy crock like the one shown (thank you to Brooklyn Kitchen for this beauty) and lay your ham on top of it. Pour the rest of the cure around it and rub it all over until the ham is completely covered. Place something non-reactive on top of the ham (I used a plastic cambro lid) and weight it down with a 10 pound can of tomatoes (or beans or whatever you have). Leave it to cure in the refrigerator for 15 days.
Hang tight, more in two weeks!