You’ve got to have hobbies. During the ever-shorter low season it is important to have things to do, especially for Yohos. Idle hands being the devil’s workshop (aka the Box on a Tuesday afternoon), you’ve got to keep those hands busy with productive endeavors, otherwise what keeps them occupied could easily turn out to be games of Threes with the bartender, Shake-a-Day, and a workout regimen that consists solely of lifting generous pours of bourbon. This was the starting point of a dialogue I was mapping out one autumn afternoon, “You know how it is this time of year. You gotta have hobbies…”. As I cast about for some kind of defense which I could lay out to the Fire Department for having to respond to calls precipitated by the backyard inferno which had earlier engulfed the beautiful edifice that had once been my smokehouse. I figured if I came up with something really good I’d get that nod of understanding working guys give each other after an understandable fuck up and maybe a small fine. Have I lost you? If you don’t know me well enough that I share my embarrassing stories with you then I probably have, so let me go back in time oh let’s say, maybe a decade.
There I was surrounded by meat with no idea how to proceed. If you are a vegan this probably sounds like the fifth level of hell, or at least a revolting predicament, but in my case this was something I had quite willingly brought on myself. A friend’s mother-in-law had a dairy farm up in Maine where she made cheeses. So as to not waste the leftover whey from the cheese production, she had taken to getting piglets every spring and feeding it to them, and then as autumn came, supplementing this diet with acorns and apples. This is a fairly common practice on many farms. After all, why waste unsalable produce when you can turn it into tasty pork? On a summertime visit to Nantucket she let it be known that when slaughtering time came in October, we could buy whole butchered animals direct from her. Yes and yes. So my friend and I made the long drive to Maine, gathered our very reasonably priced bounty, and oh man was it good! The meat came from the slaughterhouse butchered and packaged, and that was where the trouble-I mean hobby-began. You see in addition to all the cuts you get at the store (chops, spareribs, shoulder etc.) there was also a good deal of ground meat, fat back, leaf lard, and organs, all of which I had no idea how to use. Although “surrounded by meat” is a bit hyperbolic, I did have a chest freezer with a lot of packages that needed using up. Enter my wife.
If there is one person who knows the full measure of my ability to make time idly vanish, it is my wife. Just this fall I knocked out a few projects around the house; building a gate to the backyard, trimming the unfinished peak of the ceiling in our bedroom. Good stuff, right? Yes? No, you see I’d been looking at that unfinished ceiling and its $2 porcelain light fixtures hanging from exposed wire, for the last 18 years. The inertia which an incomplete project can develop is an excellent topic for an essay, which I know for a fact other much more talented writers have tackled (see waitbutwhy.com, The Procrastination Monkey). Where was I? Oh yes, so my wife bought me a copy of Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Pocelyn, and suddenly I had a new hobby: processing and curing meat.
Baby steps. They are called that for a reason; it is of course literally what babies do when learning to walk, but also it is a metaphor and caveat to those who think that they will somehow revolutionize a thousands years old art form the first time they try their hand at it. I’ve been that guy enough times to now know better so I started simple; curing bacon, and duck Prosciutto, then advancing, using a combination grinder/stuffer attachment for our Kitchenaid mixer to make fresh sausages. I already had been smoking bluefish and making barbecue for years and soon I was hot smoking my bacon and certain varieties of sausage. Instead of having the hogs cut and packaged at the slaughterhouse I began taking receipt of the whole animal and doing the butchering myself according to the Italian method described beautifully in
Charcuterie’s companion tome Salumi. Having turned down that avenue, I began producing dry cured meats and fermented sausages. The back hallway of my house turned into a middle-aged man’s Franco-Roman wet dream; a variety of salamis hanging with coppa, lardo and lonza, and below on their own rack the king of them all, proscuittos. Two rows deep, whole hams which having been buried in salt for a month dried for two years in the cool, drafty air of the stairway.
But there was something else, a waking dream, an idea that spent years forming in the back of my mind. I gleaned information from books that I can only describe as smokehouse porn. I studied on long dark winter sundays and the seeds of a plan were sown, a plan which I would spend the next few years gathering the materials to enact. I would build a smokehouse.
Hot smoking is to cold smoking as checkers is to chess. Perhaps more aptly, it is like beer is to whiskey; all of the same ingredients are used but by applying technique and time a far more complex and satisfying result can be achieved. Cold smoking meat has the same goal as salt curing, preserving meat and peventing spoiling but arrives there in an entirely different manner, by using smoke rather than salt to create an environment inhospitable to the formation of bacteria while the meat cures. Methods of preserving meat arose in every region of the world out of the need to keep the meat from large animals which could not be consumed immediately or smaller, more abundant ones edible for the times when such protein sources would not be available and they vary drastically according to the local climate. Smoking meats in the desert would be as much a disaster as attempting to dry cure in the northern latitudes. I am fortunate to live in a region where, if done carefully, it is possible to use either method.
The Platonic ideal of a smokehouse is a wooden structure but it can also simply be a barrel or if you are really ambitious, masonry. There must also be a place separate from the smoking chamber where a fire can be kept. These two elements must be connected by a pipe or tunnel of some sort that allows the smoke to travel and, most important, cool on the way from the firebox to the chamber. You don’t want the heat of the fire to cook the meat and that is why it should never, ever be less than eight feet from the chamber. If the temperature in the chamber exceeds 90 degrees fats in the meat will begin to liquify, which in addition to spoiling the finished product, can also, as will soon be revealed, have catastrophic results. I use an old airtight wood stove and because of the excellent control over the rate of burn one gains from such a device, it only raises the temperature inside the chamber 5-10 degrees above ambient outdoor readings; thus I can use my smokehouse even when the daytime temperatures reach as high as 75 degrees.
For the Germanic, Slavic and Magyar peoples of Northern and Central Europe cold smoking is what dry curing is to the Spanish, French and Italians. It is inextricably a part of their cultural identity so as I began to gather building materials I took my design cues from the photos I had seen of beautiful Polish, German and Czech smokehouses. Following the baby steps rule I did not attempt to construct anything too grand but I did want it to look cool, so when I got a carpentry gig replacing a deck I carefully removed and saved all the 1×4 cedar decking for use as sheathing. The firebox (the previously mentioned wood stove) had been cast off by a friend because it had broken hinges. I drilled out the old hinge pins and replaced them with modified 12 penny nails and had myself a nice firebox made of pure obtainium. The smokehouse had a 3’x4′ footprint and I set it on cinderblocks in the upper part of my yard. I framed it using old staging posts and planks, then sheathed it with the cedar. I sited the firebox on the patio in my lower yard and connected it to the chamber with 4 inch furnace pipe purchased at the Home Depot. Beside the furnace pipe, the only cash I laid out for the whole project was for 1 bundle of asphalt roof shingles, a 3″ exhaust chimney, hinge and latch hardware, and a thermometer which I set in the door to monitor the temperature inside the chamber. All told I spent less than 100 bucks and damn I felt clever.
What my mother calls “clever” is analogous to what the Greeks called hubris.
I finished the smokehouse in the fall just before it was time to butcher my Moors End Farm pigs so days after completion a fire was burning and meats were smoking. Salamis, sausages, salmon, duck breast, even a pork shoulder; whenever I finished processing something I couldn’t resist giving it a little time in the cold smoke because, you know, smokey flavor good. Cold smoking is, however, a slow process, especially when smoking large cuts of meat and three weeks along that pork shoulder was far from finished. This only mattered because my nephew Kevin was coming to visit and I wanted to roll out a special dinner for him that included said shoulder and that was when I committed the sin of pride. I had been so clever building the smokehouse on the cheap and everything I’d been making had been turning out so great that I decided to ignore the baby steps rule. If the shoulder wasn’t ready, I thought, I’d just speed up the process with some more heat. I couldn’t make the chamber hot enough to cook the meat, because of course the fire was eight feet away, so the solution was obviously to bring the fire into the smokehouse just like no-one had ever done.
I put a small charcoal grill inside the chamber and set some coals to burning. Soon the thermometer was reading a steady 200 degrees. Problem solved! I monitored the first batch of coals closely and when they burned down I added more to maintain the temperature. When the next batch burned down I felt that I had the situation well in hand so I added more charcoal and figured it was safe to go run some errands. Just before leaving I decided that I’d move a guanciale (pork jowl) which was also in the smokehouse to a position that was a bit closer to the coals in order to hurry it along to completion as well. That done I closed and latched the door and went about my errands.
One hour later my first floor tenant called to let me know that my chickens had escaped the yard and were out in the road. This was a fairly common occurence at the time because all the events described here pre-date the completion of the gate project I mentioned in the second paragraph. I rushed home and looked for the chickens in all the places they usually would go after escaping. They weren’t eating the tomato plants across the road, nor were they tearing up the mulch in the neighbor’s flower beds. After twenty minutes of searching and not finding them in any of their usual hideouts I figured that maybe they gone home of their own accord, so I went to check my backyard. Walking up the alley I began to notice some things that should, in retrospect, have registered as odd. There was charcoal scattered in the alley. The alley was wet and seemed as if water had recently rushed down it. The spare bits of fence and plywood I used to block the alley I lieu of a gate had fallen over. This last bit wasn’t actually odd, it happened on almost every breezy day but it did afford me a clear view of the upper section of my yard. Something was wrong but I couldn’t quite put together what it was until my gaze fell to the lower yard and I saw, smashed to pieces, the wet and charred remains of my smokehouse.
Looking back I know it must have been the guanciale. A pork jowl is almost entirely composed of pure fat and when I had moved it over the coals the fat most certainly began liquifying and dripping on them. The fat would have begun burning creating a feedback loop that was akin to adding two pounds of napalm to the small pile of charcoal. This basically unleashed a firestorm in a smoking chamber sheathed in 20 year-old sun dried cedar. Strangely though, despite the fact that the fire department had responded to a neighbor’s call, pushed over the fence, and bashed the shit out of the smokehouse with axes; they had then left the scene as soon as they’d finished dousing the blaze with their hoses. Not more than an hour and a half had elapsed from the time I left to run errands until I was standing in the alley realizing what I moron I’d been. Even stranger, or providentially if you go for that stuff, I found the pork shoulder, a bit charred but not much the worse for wear resting on the wall of the upper yard. Some fireman, who’s hand I’d like to shake, had removed the pork shoulder from the burning smokehouse before setting about his fire suppression duties.
This brings us back to the first paragraph where I was trying to think of things to say when the fire department, justifiably angry, returned. But they never came back. I expected to be issued a citation and charged a well-deserved fine in conjunction with a general what-kind-of-fucking-idiot-has-a-smokehouse-inside-the-city-limits verbal reprimand. It never happened. So I took the pork shoulder inside, trimmed off the charred bits and, as I should have in the first place, finished it in the oven just in time for dinner. We had a fine meal and after we ate I took my nephew, who’d been the first of many people to have a good laugh at my expense when I told the story, out to the backyard to see the debris. It didn’t bother me a bit that upon viewing the destruction he laughed his ass off again, I totally deserved it.
The chickens were traumatized. After all, a whole bunch of crazy shit had gone down in their little world. I found them huddled low to the ground under the shrubbery in the neighbor across the road’s yard. When I caught and brought them back to my yard they immediately ran into their coop and didn’t come out for two days. They didn’t lay any eggs for a week. My neighbors, I decided, were probably similarly traumatized and perhaps now a bit skeptical of smokehouses in a neighborhood with such small house lots. So I waited a year and a half for them to recover, for their lives to feel comfortable again, for seasons to come and go with the normal cycle of rituals, observances, holidays and anniversaries, then I built a new smokehouse.