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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

I Ham What I Am: A Pork Lover’s Paradise, a Vegetarian’s Worst Nightmare

I have a pig’s rear leg sitting on the counter in my kitchen, its little hoof pointing daintily upwards as if it’s trying to get a perfect ten in a diving competition. In almost every other country in the world that would be a little strange but in Spain it’s as natural as a paper towel rack is in an American household. These pig legs are called jamón serrano or jamón ibérico and you see them hanging from the rafters in bars and restaurants in every corner of Spain. Cured ham is one of the most popular delicacies in Iberia and for good reason: ham is good. It is dry cured here and then sliced paper towel thin. It’s a bit like ham jerky for lack of a better description. Jerky is good, and ham is even better, so what could possibly be better than ham jerky? While you are thinking in vain I’ll just cut myself a few thin slices—this pig leg isn’t going to eat itself.

Jamón is more established in some parts of the country than others but you can find it everywhere. In most parts of Castilla and Andalucia it is positively ubiquitous. In Madrid I once took a cab that served jamón. I just made that up but it sounds like a money-making idea to me. Here in Valencia it isn’t quite so popular but people still eat it whenever they get the chance. You can buy jamón in every supermarket and meat store in town.

One of the bars in my neighborhood specializes in jamón as the owner is from another, more jamón-friendly province. There is always a ham mounted in a slicing rack where someone is almost always slicing away, trying to keep up with the customer demands. Next to the carving station there are a dozen or so hams hanging on the wall like players waiting to go into a game. All of these benchwarmer hams have a little upside down umbrella underneath them to catch any fat that still may be draining out of the salt cured and dried legs. I eat so much ham that I probably need one of these drip cups. I’m not going to say where it should go.

It’s not like the only part of the pig that gets eaten here is the hind legs. Just look in my refrigerator and you can probably find the rest of the carcass. In the butcher shop meat case you’ll find the feet, ears, belly, ribs, and heads. Nothing goes to waste because that’s why they invented sausage. As much as I like Spanish hams, I’m an even bigger fan of the wide variety of sausages they make here. They have become my drug of choice, not that I have abandoned my other drugs of choice. A sausage wouldn’t be much fun without wine to go with it.

Villages all over Spain showcase their products by holding Bacchanalian celebrations of wine and pork products. Spanish people take their meat very seriously and they are too preoccupied at these events with the food and wine—and they are probably too well-adjusted and mature—to stop and think of the humor potential of being, literally, in the middle of a sausage fest. My own puerile mind can’t help wanting to scream out, “Don’t you get it? It’s a sausage fest!” Evidently they don’t.

You may want to ask me, “Don’t you think that you eat too much pork?” All that I can say is that it’s a complicated matter and a very difficult question for me to answer if I want the answer to be “no.” I love pig. I eat a lot of it. I eat so much that the other day I burped and it sounded a little like an oink. It’s just that it is difficult to avoid pork in Spain. Pork finds its way into so many of the national dishes that it is conspicuous by its absence in those few recipes that call for some other animal. And yes, there are recipes in Spain that do not call for pork; you’ll find them at the bottom of page 1,113 in the All the Recipes of Spain cookbook, right after the dessert section (all of which use at least a tea spoon or two of pig meat sprinkles).

You can’t get many of these wonderful Spanish pork products in America because of U.S.D.A regulations or whatever. I have decided that an easy way to get rich is to start an international smuggling cartel. I tried to start my jamón traficante business last week by smuggling a ham into the country disguised as a pregnant nun. By the time I got to Kennedy Airport in New York all I had was bone. I shared with everyone around me on the flight so at least I made some new friends. If you are an importer of illegal goods, never use your own product. I think I saw that in a movie once. I don’t like drugs very much so if I were a cocaine dealer this wouldn’t be a problem, but Spanish ham is just so good.

Some Spanish hams are almost as expensive as cocaine so it is fairly common to see overweight men in hot pants and halter tops standing on corners in the shady areas of town doing whatever they have to do to feed their habit. I have not yet reached this level of depravity although I sometimes will buy ham instead of other basic household necessities. I mean, how often do you really need to wash your hair? If it were possible I would buy cheaper wine to give me more money to buy pork. The wine I buy now arrives at the supermarket in one of those cement mixer trucks. I guess I could quit drinking to afford more ham. Ouch! My liver just kicked me like an 8 ½ month old fetus. White Slavery: Too high a price to pay for Spanish ham? That is a question only you can answer. Now where did I put that mini skirt and boa?

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