Zakary Pelaccio: Patience

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Zakary Pelaccio

Zakary Pelaccio › Zakary Pelaccio is chef/owner of Fish & Game in Hudson, New York. Zakary's approach to ...

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Patience. I’ve been waiting a long time for this.

The ham was cut from the pig’s carcass sixteen months ago. The breed was Tamworth: mild-mannered creatures with red bristles, a fine marbling throughout, and a ratio of meat to fat that we presumed was well suited to the prosciutto we set out to make.

I had done my best to cut the ham in such a way as to include all the hind muscle groups while not cutting into the loin. The cut was sweet: precise, that is. The ham, once separated, was round, smooth and appeared truly prosciutto-worthy, so we went ahead and buried it in sea salt.

At a certain point, based on our somewhat loose calculations, we remembered to pull it from the salt, brush it off, and hang it up.

It’s really quite simple. Cut the meat, salt the meat, hang the meat.

Just use quality meat. Only use quality meat. Always. Use. Quality. Meat.

More than a few variables exist between the salting and the finished product. We’re working those out. Those are our secrets.

It’s just nice to be here giving it time and allowing for life to take its time.

I will say this: traditional methods, frowned upon by know-nothings and rhapsodized by the cognoscenti, seem to have a favorable effect. Yes, friends, there is no substitute for sweet country air.

Fifteen months after hanging in various spots in our verdant valley and only days after the one-year anniversary of our opening of Fish & Game, we cut into our ham. Older than the restaurant itself, this is one of several pre-opening projects that is teaching us how the ingredients that end up in the kitchen ready for the evening’s menu are years in the making.

Our menu tonight, any night, began years ago. Jori provided even greater examples of this idea when I showed her this essay. She wrote back to me:

“We plant garlic in October and wait patiently until June/July to eat it. We start seeds in February for a plant we won’t harvest until August. We plant puntarelle and asparagus and wait three years to harvest them. We do these things because of the beauty and the reward of having the connection and knowing we’re doing it the right way, even though in this day and age it seems like the wrong way because it takes too long.”

We knew we had to cut into this ham to determine if our curing and aging methods had taken the ham in the right direction—not because we were impatient, as impatient as we all seem to be in this age of immediate gratification—but because we have more hams hanging. Had this ham gone off, there was great likelihood the others were off as well.

This was our test.

We have no ham tester (the little hollow point needle used in Parma and other famous ham regions throughout the world) to stick into the meat and pull out a core sample. We do need to buy one of those.

To date, all the hams had been cured and hung in the exact same method, only at different times.

Holding the ham, smelling it, touching it, we all—Kevin, Jori and I—shared the feeling that everything would be all right. But we had to cut it to know: to taste the salt, the texture, to see whether or not some unwanted bacteria had crept inside, quietly rotting the meat from within, giving us false hope.

The meat was fine. Better than fine. It was a deep pink, with a tight grain and perfectly à point in its saltiness. Fifteen months is approximately nine months shy of when I’d like to be pulling the hams, however with more pigs queuing up for curing, we felt it prudent to check our oldest ham’s progress to aid in guiding our future efforts.

Allowing the hams to hang for at least 24 months, I think, will afford them a more developed “nose:” greater complexity and a bit of funk in the aroma, adding greatly to the sensuous pleasure of consuming salt cured, air-dried pig.

The ham into which we cut is now a staple at the bar, served thinly sliced.

Last week we also served it in the dining room wrapped around one of our eggs, soft boiled, and dressed with a ramp leaf salsa verde. Honestly, though, I prefer this kind of ham eaten on its own, perhaps accompanied by a glass (or two) of Malvasia from Emilia-Romagna–or perhaps even a dry cider, made nearby… or sherry, of course. With ham this good you can’t really go wrong.

As Jori elucidated, the ham is only part of that for which I’ve been waiting.

The ham is the ham.

The aforementioned waiting also pertains to the time, space and mindset to make the ham and hang it in the manner we did: like having a garden and working the soil, allowing it to develop and knowing that what we do won’t be truly great until the soil is rich with life.

The waiting also refers to the spring that teased out its arrival following the deep freeze of this winter past. The waiting is what was and isn’t anymore as I am here and definitely not there. Waiting may not be the right word.

I’m not sure that I or Jori or any of us immersed in this project were ever really waiting.

I’m not one to pine. It’s just nice to be here giving it time and allowing for life to take its time. Proper time.

And I’m just conscious enough to recognize that.

I am, however, also aware that the years, the winters, take their toll and, as Alvaro Mutis put it, on one’s “face one could see the rigidity of controlled pain that is accepted as the price we must inevitably pay to go on being who we are.” The spring eventually softens this hard existence but the lines remain, remnants of the absence of mercy in nature.

We have no choice other than to be OK with this.

On occasion something will trigger memories of the time I spent working and living in the city. There were times of elation, moments of inspiration, collaborations with great talents, long hours, weeks, months, intense and engaging discourse, fucking in cars parked outside three-star Michelin restaurants, apartment and neighborhood hopping, intentional decadence, drinking and over-eating, falling in love.

Life happened. And as it did it brought memorable moments.

But for a good part of my time in the city after the turn of the millennium, there was a lingering discomfort: a dissatisfaction with the cynicism that surrounded the business, some bad partnerships, and the density, but most of all an unbridgeable disconnect with the product and conflicted feelings about the paradigm on which so many restaurants are built.

That has changed. And now spring is here.

We at Fish & Game have created a unique situation in the Hudson Valley, the result of a fantasy shared by more than the people directly involved with the restaurant. What is being built and what has already come to pass at and around Fish & Game is part of a more general awakening.

An attentiveness. A more considered style of living than I have ever witnessed or been a part of.

Being human and a still very much a New Yorker, I find it challenging not to quip that this “enlightenment” is probably due to our heightened sensitivity that the waste of our rampant consumerism is close to consuming us. Such unchecked growth is perhaps partially a result of too much of the “think big!” mentality, the mantra of industry titans and self-proclaimed masters of the universe.

I wonder now if it was hard for He-Man to see beyond his muscles.

I’ve begun to think of it this way: we’re not capable of much, yet the little bit we do can resonate far beyond our time. It is this small work, when done with great care and attention to detail—up and down the ladder of all the elements involved in our doing, before and after the doing is done—that is making this time more beautiful than any I have ever known.

Witnessing this and being a part of it, has made the waiting—if only recognized after it has passed—worth it. And so I smile, knowingly, as I begin to understand that spring—the cutting of a ham and the green—is our annual reminder of the necessity of patience and its persistent beauty.

Zakary Pelaccio is the chef/owner of Fish & Game, a restaurant in Hudson, New York. This essay originally appeared in Fish & Game’s Spring 2014 newsletter. 

Photo credit: Fish & Game