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November 23, 2009

Quest for my dream ham (Part II)

Here's the thing. I love it.

Meat, that is.

I'm a conscious and conscientious consumer, and believe me I'm distressed about the entire food industry and culture of the USA, but given the choice between a plate with a soft, fragrant, grass fed, happily roaming cow-turned-steak seared to rare-medium perfection and one without, I know what I'd go for.

Which brings us to Saturday morning, before the craziness that was the weekend truly kicked off.

Ever since I moved back to San Diego I've been meaning to stop by a shop called Sausage King, but either it was closed or I was in a hurry. This place is run by an old German couple who have been selling cured and butchered meats for almost half a century. My mom used to buy steaks for our family there, and when I was a little girl it was a regular destination. In particular, there was this amazing ham she used to give my sister and me, on rye bread over a thin layer of butter, which we ate on Saturday mornings while watching the Smurfs. It was practically a ritual.

Well, on Saturday I randomly drove by, saw the OPEN sign -- and realized I had some time. So I parked around the corner and immediately, the scent of smoked tenderloins greeted my yearning nostrils.

I walked in, and the store was unchanged. The same dim room, the same array of sausages hanging from the ceiling, the same selection of Mitteleuropean sweets crowding the shelves. The couple looked different, though -- and I'm sure I was unrecognizable to them.

"Hello, how can I help you?" the woman behind the counter asked with a soft German accent.

"Hi. I used to come here when I was a little girl."

"Oh yeah?"

"Yes. And now I was in the area, so I thought I would see if you have a type of meat I'm looking for, which my mom used to buy here. I don't know what's it's called."

"What did it taste like?"

"It was smoked, and very soft. And there was some iridescence on it. I wish I could remember its name. We had it on sandwiches."

I called my mom quickly, but she couldn't remember, either.

"Maybe it's this one," the woman tried. "It's a bit like a prosciutto." Sounded good, even if it wasn't right. I ordered half a pound, which she sliced. As she wrapped it up for me, she gave me a scrap to try. It was totally different. Really salty and slimy, actually. Definitely not my dream ham.

But I had ordered it, so now I was stuck with it. Half a pound. Maybe I could salvage it -- use it like bacon, building it into an omelet for Mr. A? Or cut up and mix in with something blander, for a smokey kick? Dry it, wrap it and give it to my frenemy for Christmas?

I approached the counter to pay and noticed there was no credit card machine.

"Do you take cards?" I asked.

"Cash only," she replied.

Well, there was an out. I didn't want that ham and I didn't have cash.

Instead, I heard myself telling her I'd be back in a minute and I reluctantly set out to find an ATM. Of which there were none in a two mile radius. So I drove 10 minutes to my bank, and even waited in line 10 minutes, just to collect the cash for that poor excuse for a prosciutto.

I'll be honest with you. I came so close to bolting. I mean, come on. Spend half an hour and $5? For some damn ham you don't want, at a business that doesn't take cards? What is this, Berlin in 1987? There are plenty of good meat suppliers in San Diego, some a few blocks from my house. I should totally just leave her, and the ham, hanging.

But here's the thing. I couldn't do that. Not to a small butcher shop that has withstood the rise and fall of several grocery stores just blocks away, where my mom went to buy our meats. Not to the Sausage King.

When I walked in, the lady's face lit up.

"You came back!"

"Of course!"

"I thought you changed your mind. I put your meat back, but it's still here."

"I drove to my bank, which was kind of far. I would never just disappear!" (Never dream of it...)

As she rang me up, she and her husband told me how old the shop is, and how they've been featured 17 times on that thing, the website thing...

"The internet?" I asked.

"Yes, that."

Meanwhile, I thought I would give it one more try.

"So, this ham I'm getting isn't the one I was looking or. It looks more like this one, pinker, less red..." I said, pointing to something else.

"Oh! Now I know! It must be the Schwarzwald! We still make it, but we're out now. But we'll make some in a few weeks. Here's our card. Call and I'll set some aside for you."

Das ist gut. Ja!

Gained: Didn't act like a jerk. And, fingers crossed, tracked down my beloved mystery meat.
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