Extreme Home Charcuterie

Published in Gourmet Live 03.16.11
When she agreed to tie the knot, Lise Funderburg didn’t mean the one at the end of the soppressata. Life with a sausage maker, from bacon curing to venison sawing
Extreme Home Charcuterie

Ours was a classic romance: First came love, then came marriage, then came deer liver prosciutto held together with hardware-store zip ties.

Allow me to explain: Among my husband John’s many enthusiasms is cooking. John is fearless in the kitchen. There isn’t a restaurant entrée he won’t reverse-engineer, and there isn’t a Cook’s Illustrated premise he isn’t willing to test. He’s an architect by training but an explorer at heart. In fact, when I met him, part of what attracted me was his mix of adventurousness and agency. He was a man who got stuff done, who showed up when things were easy and when they were hard, and who had hobbies he pursued with a passion and vigilance I found equal parts reassuring and irresistible. So it was no surprise, a few years into nuptial bliss, that when our neighbor—let’s just call her The Instigator—called from a yard sale to say she’d found a smoker and wouldn’t John like to keep it in our driveway (instead of hers), he immediately began formulating plans on how to put the well-worn (but only $25!) contraption to use.

Bacon was his first foray into cured meat. On well-marbled pork bellies procured from the local Korean supermarket, he pressed spice rubs and brushed maple syrup pastes. The bellies lay in zip-top bags in our basement fridge for about a week, and when John deemed the time right, he put them out in the smoker on a cool evening and let them sit overnight until they developed a pellicle—a shiny and tacky air-dried exterior onto which the smoke could stick. Then he set the alarm for early the next morning so he could fire up the smoker for an eight-hour treatment, periodically stoking the fire with more hickory.

Right from the start, the bacon turned out well, and we became a popular stop on weekend mornings for friends and family who were between errands. “Coffee?” I’d offer. “Bacon?” they’d answer. One batch might be sweeter, one a little on the salty side, but it was all edible. Highly edible.

John, riding high on his breakfast meat success, itched to smoke something else. “How about sausage?” asked The Instigator, who just happened to have a French math professor friend (“The Professor”) who knew a lot about leaf lard and owned a single-horsepower meat grinder. Forty pounds of Boston butt later, our kitchen had been transformed into a sausage factory. John and The Professor were joined by her Czech grad student and two former restaurant cooks, one who’d turned antiques dealer, the other poet.

Half of the results were left as loose sausage, turned into patties and cooked for a 60-person open house party we held later the same day. The other half was squeezed into casings, distributed among its creators and given over to various fates, including thick stews with cannellini beans and kale, straight pan-fries with parsnip or potato mash and John’s version of a picture he’d seen in a book 20 years before, of sausages served with whole, seared grapes.

John, a lily-gilder, decided to let the next round of meat cure. Fresh sausage was child’s play, as he saw it; he wanted the challenge of layering in this more sophisticated technique. I heard him grumble now and then about humidity and temperature concerns—both hard to control in our drafty 1906 house—but beyond that, I paid little mind. Until the beagle went missing.

The beagle, a rescue dog with separation anxiety, was the ultimate Velcro pet, sticking by my side wherever I went, sleeping by (if not on) my bed, lying in wait by the shower, pressed up against my leg as I sat at my desk. So it was no small concern when I looked away from my computer screen one day and realized she was nowhere to be found. Maybe she was stuck in the basement, I thought, or had been left out in the backyard. Eventually I found her on our third floor, parked in front of the guest bedroom door. She looked as bewildered as I felt, until I opened the door. In the center of the room, sitting squarely on the hand-knotted wool carpet, was my wooden lingerie rack, spread open and draped with strings of meat cased in pork intestines. A humidifier hummed at full blast; a space heater kept the temperature at a steady 60 degrees; and the room reeked of spice and curing flesh. I could almost feel the upholstery and mattress fibers absorbing what was surely to become their permanent perfume. We had guests coming that very weekend. Vegetarian guests.

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