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Cas City Forum Hall & CAS-L  |  Special Interests - Groups & Societies  |  Cosie's Corner & Feed Bag (Moderator: Delmonico)  |  Topic: A Primer on Pork in the 19th Century 0 Members and 1 Guest are viewing this topic. « previous next »
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Author Topic: A Primer on Pork in the 19th Century  (Read 1703 times)
Deputy Marshal
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« on: February 24, 2016, 01:09:27 pm »

One thing I like to point out to people who are interested in learning to do living history demonstrations involving food or even people who are already doing this type of demonstrations is that we do have to make some concessions to modern times, one is that the foods commonly available at the local grocery store are often really not the same as what would have been raised at home or sold in stores.   Short of raising our own and using the old cultivars of the plants and the less improved breeds of meat animals, we are going to in most cases using what we can get from our modern suppliers and just be aware of the differences, if one is at least educated in these differences they can make some very interesting opportunities to teach about the past.

(The whole discussion about the loss of biodiversity in the last couple of centuries is well known and there are many trying to save a lot what is left to use for further development and I really don’t want to get into that here, one has to remember despite all the pros and cons, many of these types are not capable of feeding the world on the mass production scale we need today for many reasons.)

Improvements in the breeding of domesticated plants and animals dates back to the beginning of farming and livestock raising and could cover a very large book while just scratching the surface, our third United States President was very involved in both obtaining better cultivars of plants from over seas as well as improving the ones we already had and he was far from the only one.  The push for this became greater in the second half of the 19th century with emigrants bringing in types not known before especially from Central Europe and Asia, areas that until then had seen few people coming to this country.   (The improvements in just wheat in the last quarter of the century changed wheat growing forever in this country and I will cover this in the future.)   Also botanists such as Luther Burbank as well as others turned plant breeding into an industry and The United States Department of Agriculture sent agents around the world to collect new types of plants and livestock breeders imported new breeds of livestock and poultry.   

For now I am going to talk about pork and show one of the best examples from the latter half of the 19th century I’ve ever seen and let you compare it with what you can buy today.  Also I’m going to show you how the changes affected and are still affecting the way we eat and cook.   A lot of this has to do with our pork being leaner than in the past, (our beef tends to be fatter) often pork today is leaner than most retail consumer beef.

The example I use is from the Solomon butcher Collection, I’m sure most of you have seen pictures from this collection, he’s famous for the sod house pictures he took in the late 1880’s to around 1910, and most of the negatives on 5X7 glass plates were saved, making them very usable in our digital age.   These of course are not Texas pictures, but were taken in the Sandhills region of Nebraska, but many things such as this are relevant to most of the country. 

The picture I am using was taken in 1886 by Solomon butcher, the name of the man or where it was taken has been lost, although many of his pictures have this information, most likely somewhere in Custer County because most of his pictures from this time are in that county and he was based out of Broken Bow, the county seat.   This picture has many interesting items in it, although due to it being taken through the door of the sod house, the quality is not as good as most of his full outdoor ones.  The picture is titled “Bachelor preparing supper” and of course like most pictures of the time it is posed.   

Take a look at the ham in the cropped and enhanced picture, today anyone buying a ham that fat would most likely not be happy and would think they’d been cheated.   The color ham picture is what we come to expect today.  One can see how much fat the 1886 ham has, that was normal for most pork at the time, the fat if not eaten would have been used to season beans, greens or similar items or rendered and used as lard or bacon drippings are as shortening or to fry in.   One can use the modern ham scraps the same, however there will be not as much to use in that manner, ham in my camp almost always involves ham and beans for a later meal, even though I have to use the modern hams.   

This leaning down of the pork caused a problem that would help a product brought on the market by Proctor and Gambles in 1911, a product that would spawn imitators, this being Crisco artificial lard made from soy bean oils.

Besides being fatter, the hams of the time (as well as the bacon) were a drier, saltier product than the hams today, due to the dry curing method used in most cases where they were rubbed with salt (sometimes with sugar and/or Potassium nitrate) for 2-4 weeks salt being rubbed in every couple days or so.  This allowed the salt mix to penetrate the meat all the way through and in the process drawing some of the water out of the meat.   These hams were them often sewn up in a canvas bag before cold smoking for an average of 48-72 hours, the bag keeping the meat clean in shipping and handling and the smoke penetrates the canvas quite fine.  The idea was to allow the meat to keep for an extended period of time with out refrigeration, 1-2 years is often given as the time they could be kept if kept in a cool and dry place.  The ham was often soaked in water and/or par-boiled, either whole, or the desired slices, for a time to help remove some of the salt as well as to help it hydrate before cooking.   
Today these type of hams are called “Country Hams” and although you can still buy country hams they are not as fully cured as the older hams, and are quite a bit more expensive in most cases and most important, not often seen in many stores or are seasonal around the winter holidays and Easter.   

The hams we buy today in most cases are what is often referred to as “City Hams” and are not expensive in most cases and readily available at any grocery store.  These are cheaper because the processing and “curing” are much faster, these are injected with a brine solution and hot smoked right away, fully cooking the hams in just a few hours.   Although most are now fully cooked due to hot smoking the product, they are still improved in flavor by either slicing and frying or slow baking as well as slow roasting, besides improving the flavor, the roasting or baking slow also serves to tenderize the meat. 

A couple other ham terms that come up and are not well understood, the first is picnic ham, this is just the shoulder that is cured and smoked in the same manner as the ham, (which as we all know is the upper part of the back leg).  An economical cut that can be good if cooked slowly it tends to be tougher than ham made from the back leg, and should never cost more than back ham because it has more bone and gristle, this an interesting phenomenon that seems to be happening of late although I don’t know why other than people must think it’s a better cut.

Ham hocks are the lower part of both the front leg as well as the back, this cut is cured and smoked like the ham itself, this cut is tougher and has a lot of cartilage in it, it is best cook slowly with moisture and is often added to beans for flavor and the meat removed from the hock and eaten separately.

The other is pressed ham, we all see these at the store, either sliced or packaged as cold cuts or often in plastic casings, every “ham” looking like every other one and boneless of course.  Close examination shows they are made of scraps of meat cured and pressed together.   What is not totally clear from my research is the exact history of these so called hams, most think they are a 20th century invention, although information is a bit lacking on the exact history, (like many items before the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906) these were made at least by the last quarter of the 19th century, US Patent 194693 Aug 28, 1877 was granted to a David C. Link on a process of making pressed ham from pork scraps.   

Now how extensive they were getting with manufacture of pressed hams I have not been able to find out, but this patent came at a time when the big packers were starting to brag about how they used every part of the pig but its squeal, the patent was the most information I could find on it, most likely this patent or similar methods were used to produce pressed ham for at least the lower end of the market, such as lower end saloon Free Lunch Counters and similar uses, as well as the other processed items such as salami, bologna that the companies were just starting to make in bulk.

In the United States the cured cut we call bacon is the fat side and belly meat, much of the rest of the English speaking world calls this streaky bacon. 

When boneless loin or the tender loin is cured and smoke it here in the United States we call it Canadian bacon, although the rest of the English speaking world call it back bacon.  There are several stories that purport the origins of the term, I checked a lot of 19th century references and find no reference to the term Canadian bacon and a check of my collegiate dictionary says the term dates from the 1930’s which make the ones I have read very doubtful, so if this product is used in camp the term back bacon would be proper.   

We run into one other bacon product, this being the jowl bacon, sometimes called hog jowls although the bacon part implies they are cured and smoked.    This is the cheek meat from the side of the head; it resembles side/belly bacon, but is not as large of a piece and is most often or at least in my area, sold un-sliced.  It is either sliced and fried or is used to flavor beans, greens and other dishes.   

Although most bacon today is not pre-cooked like most of the hams, it is also brine injected before smoking a short time for flavor; of course most is sliced before packaging.  Short of making your own bacon, the modern type is usable just keep it in the hidden ice box.   The sliced part can in many areas, be solved by buying slab (unsliced) bacon, we have a local chain store with in-house smokehouses that sell it and many smaller town locker plants offer it, it adds that bit of realism needed that you just don’t get with pre-sliced.   

The last subject I’m going to cover seems perhaps even more misunderstood than ham or bacon, this being salt pork.  Even the more modern versions of ham and bacon look very correct when viewed; this one just makes me laugh when I see it, as we often have on some of the history shows that use reenactors and their camps for filming documentaries.  This is that 12 ounces of salt or fresh pork the US Army (the Confederate when they could) issued each soldier as part of their daily ration through most of the 19th century.   Fresh pork is no problem, although of course our modern store type will be leaner than in the past, the problem is the “salt pork” which really needs defined.   

Salt pork also called barrel pork, is simply cut up pork preserved in a barrel in “brine strong enough to float a raw egg.”  The strength of the salt brine stops the types of microbes that causes the meat to putrefy, in other words it is simply pickled pork (salt or corned beef being the same except Potassium nitrate is added to preserve the red color).  By now I’m sure someone is thinking, “But I can buy salt pork in the same place as bacon down at the local grocery store.”    Well look again, this is brined pork all right, but contains little if any actual meat, it is mostly fat, this being what is known as fatback and is the strip of hard fat that is above the backbone and between the loins.   This has many uses and it is sometimes fried (either fresh or salted) when it has some meat in it as “a streak of lean.”    Salt pork as used by the military and others was chunks of whole pork cut into 4-5 pound pieces and preserved in the barrel of brine. 

Most think of salt pork as a military ration, but it was used to a very large extent by many people, before the era of refrigeration and quick transportation as a way to have meat all year long, fresh meat not taking long in warm weather to putrefy and become unfit for consumption.    The invention of the refrigerator railroad car in the late 1860’s allowed fresh meat to be sent to areas from the major meat packing centers in summer, this slowly started the decline in the use of salt pork by many in urban areas, but remained common into the 20th century by people in rural areas, especially farmers who butchered their own meat.     

If one wants to use true period salt pork in camp then one is going to have to make it themselves, it is not hard, but a bit more back ground, the salt pork in the 19th century would have been made up in a standard barrel holding around 42 gallons.   Most are not going to want that much, one can make it in a smaller crock or it can be made and transported in a more modern container and then the presentation can be done on site, the above mentioned crock is always good.

To start with we need a non-metallic container large enough to hold the pork and the brine, something with a lid is best, (actually to make it at home, just cheat and use the big zip-lock bags).   

Once we have a container figured out we are going to need some pork, any cut will do, how ever shoulder cuts are the best, because if one thinks about it, the fresh hams were most often cured for ham, the bellies for bacon, the ribs really don’t have that much meat on them and the loins make awfully good fresh pork.  Not saying these other cuts can’t be used, but the shoulder would have been the most common seen in barrel pork.

Besides water, the other item we’ll need is salt to make the brine, and just not any salt, it needs to be pure salt, the type called pickling and canning salt is pure, one does not want the common iodized table salt, iodine can discolor the meat and give it an off taste, the anti-caking substance in the salt makes a cloudy brine which is not good either.   The now popular sea salt or the Himalaya salts are not pure and despite what one may be told, are not proper either, what one wants is pickling and canning salt, they type used by home canners to make pickles.   

Make the brine at the rate of ½ cup of salt for every 2 cups of water, the pork should have as much excess blood washed from it as possible and then it needs to be packed loosely in the container and the brine poured around it to cover the meat, if making in a crock or barrel, use a plate and non-metallic weight to make sure the pork is submerged.    Depending on the thickness of the meat, it will take around two weeks for the salt to penetrate all the way through the meat. 

Now in theory of course the meat should be fine in any cool place, but I simply prefer to keep it in the refrigerator, they is a small chance of spoilage in the center before the salt fully penetrates and I prefer not to risk this.   Also skim any layer that builds up on the surface, old recipes in cook books recommend watching and if the meat being stored gets a red color in the brine, it needs drain, boiled and added back to prevent spoilage, a process not done much with the military issue, which may have helped account for the poor quality often reported.   For people doing living history I see no reason to use this process as a long term storage method, but something either made up a short time before it’s needed, or when cured, toss In the plastic bags in the freezer till needed, I think the risks of this method for long term are just not worth it, failure could cause food poisoning, remember there were a lot of reports of spoiled salt pork during the Civil War. 

I hope you find this information useful, it is not intended to criticize anyone, but to pass on some of the knowledge I’ve gained in 20 years of researching 19th century foods.

Mongrel Historian

Always get the water for the coffee upstream from the herd.

Ab Ovo Usque ad Mala

The time has passed so quick, the years all run together now.
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« Reply #1 on: February 24, 2016, 04:32:25 pm »

Good article.  Personally, I think the ham in the Solomon photograph looks just right, in terms of fat. 

For St Pat's day I make my own corned pork - beef being too castle Irish for me.  I use kosher salt and a little pickling salt for color.  Kosher salt should be measured by weight, as its grain structure leads to a less dense measure when done by volume.   I use 1/2 lb salt and 1 oz nitrate per gallon of water. 

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Scattered Thumbs
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« Reply #2 on: March 21, 2016, 03:52:43 pm »

Howdy Del!

Excellent article! But as I read I come to realize how different things are from your ol' good US of A and my country.
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