The Emma Woodhouse Ham Project

by Cara Nicoletti on April 5, 2013

IMG_5966

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)

emmaham

“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.”

IMG_5970

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.

IMG_5982
Ingredients:

  • 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

IMG_5983

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.

IMG_5992

Hang tight, more in two weeks!

Don't forget to follow along for updates:

If there’s a literary food scene you want to see come to life be sure to leave me a comment and let me know! Or take a peek in the Recipe Index.

Leave a Comment

Nick April 5, 2013 at 2:58 pm

I too am an Emma Woodhouse fan. I found her, as a sheltered 20-yr-old woman coming to terms with the impact of her actions, very sympathetic. And hilarious. I remember with fondness my naive and pretentious 20-yr-old self and wonder at the genius of Austen to capture that so perfectly.

Reply

Cara Nicoletti April 5, 2013 at 7:53 pm

I love a man who’s a Jane Austen/Emma fan. I was a nightmare at 20, I can’t believe I’ve held on to any of my friends from that time!

Reply

Deb April 6, 2013 at 8:44 am

I am so excited about this project! Can’t wait to check back and see how it turns out.
Your photos of the process are beautiful- who knew curing a ham could be so pretty?!

Reply

Michelle April 8, 2013 at 11:12 pm

Wonderful! And, no, I’m not bothered at all.

Reply

india April 9, 2013 at 1:53 pm

YES!!! I love the idea of a long term cooking project that we get updates on. I don’t even eat meat but recognize this as brilliant. Maybe you should brew some beer too?! Can’t wait to read more about the little piggy in a few weeks.

Reply

Elizabeth Aquino April 11, 2013 at 12:54 am

One of your very coolest posts. I admit to being the sort of person who gets a tad squeamish around the raw stuff, but I’m also married to a European chef who chides and scoffs at me when I do so.

Reply

Jan April 12, 2013 at 9:11 am

So enjoyed reading this. My family doesn’t believe me when I tell them about “butchering” day. My father used to cure hams and bacon in almost the same way that Emma did. He also made corned beef. Our cellar was full of those huge crocks and although we were considered poor, we never went hungry.

Reply

laroiya April 12, 2013 at 9:17 am

‘that insipid Fanny Price’ – amen! she was awful! And I’m not too fond of the heroines of Sense and Sensibility or Persuasion either…. Thank you for the post – I love things like this! I just spent almost two days making homemade beef stock before realizing that it was neither time- nor cost-effective… but it feels so good to make things yourself…

Reply

Tegan April 12, 2013 at 10:40 am

Amazing! I freely admit sometimes I feel a bit squeamish seeing the pig before dismemberment but I’m doing my damnedest to work on it as I agree with you on the fact that I dislike hos unconnected we are to our food these days. To that end I use my meager allotment of full sun (My yard is almost all tree shade) to grow veggies and I try to visit my kind and understanding butchers as often as possible.

I freely admit I found you thanks to VSL and I’m definitely going to stick around to hear more about how this goes.

Have you gone into more detail about how your shop does the various processes before or would you be willing to doso? I’d be really interested to hear and maybe see.

Reply

Marcy April 12, 2013 at 6:34 pm

So beautifully done. Can’t wait for the follow up to see how it turns out.

Reply

Kelly April 12, 2013 at 7:37 pm

I just discovered your website and LOVE IT! I’m an English teacher and a food blogger, so you’ve tapped into both of my passions. I’m looking forward to reading through all your posts. :-)

Reply

Previous post:

Next post: