I had an odd dream the other night, odder than usual. I found myself standing next to my mother in the kitchen of my childhood home, without any idea of how I got there. On the granite countertop, there was a large sheet of wax paper, which bore four raw, skin-on pork cheeks.
“We’re curing them today, right?” I asked, as I moved my hand towards one.
My mother slapped it away.
“We’re braising them today,” she said. Without speaking again, she heated an enamel pan on the stove with some olive oil and seared each cheek, skin-side down, like she used to do with chicken on Friday afternoons when I was a child. I heard the skin sizzle, and woke up.
Freud thought that dreams were difficult to understand because they were the result of displacement and condensation, of real-life anxieties expressed through vignettes. “When in a dream something has the character of a spoken utterance — that is, when it is said or heard, not merely thought, and the distinction can usually be made with certainty,” he writes in The Interpretation of Dreams, “then it originates in the utterances of waking life, which have, of course, been treated as raw material, dismembered, and slightly altered, and above all removed from their context.”
In my case, Freud was right about raw material, dismembered and slightly altered. This past school year, I have found a new hobby: curing meats. Pork cheeks, mostly, but also pork shoulders and beef rounds. Off in the corner of my dingy little basement, I may have as many as eight hunks of salted, spiced meat hanging at one time. Each piece of meat is tied with twine and hangs on a coatrack pole I liberated from my closet.
I began curing for simple enough reasons. I like cured meats, but they’re expensive in Ann Arbor. I like cooking, and wanted to try something more advanced. I wanted to feel more Italian. I wanted to do something out of the ordinary.
The first cured meat I made was guanciale, the salted, air-dried pork cheek that flavors many classic pastas in Rome. Properly cured, it tastes like pure pork, with fat that is somehow both crunchy and tender. I special-ordered two cheeks from the local butcher, and found a simple recipe online that required neither the addition of sodium nitrites (a preservative which gives hams and salami their cured flavor), nor a climate-controlled chamber. Salt, sugar, some aromatics, the cheeks and time. Each cheek resembled an irregular slab of bacon covered on one side by pink skin, with a few bristles still attached. They looked, when held at the right angle, like cheeks. I placed them in a plastic bag with the cure for about a week, and then hung them in the basement to dry, with no idea how they’d turn out.
I’ve never been so happy to see mold. On the thirteenth day of curing in my basement, my pork cheeks each had a small patch of white powder on their skin-side, a sign that some airborne strain of the penicillium genus had decided to make their home there. Penicillium molds can produce penicillin, the antibiotic compound hailed as a godsend in the twentieth century for its curative powers over both battlefield injuries and gonorrhea. There wasn’t any Nazi schrapnel or clap floating around my basement, I presume, but the dusting of penicillium would protect my meat from more sinister microbes.
I was proud of my pork cheeks. I would inspect them daily, running my finger along their surface, feeling them go from tacky to crusty. I’d make puerile jokes to friends who came over (“Want to go to the basement and see my meat?”). I pored over recipes, trying to find the perfect ones to gift with my precious meat. More than pride, though, I felt a sense of awe. I had no real idea what I was doing. I couldn’t tell you what the ambient temperature of the basement was, or the reduction in water weight over the weeks as the cheeks slowly dried out. Those friendly penicillium molds could very easily have been unfriendly ones. I was a food-obsessed amateur at the mercy of air and water and microbes.
After three weeks, I brought a cheek home to my family for Thanksgiving, wrapped gently like a newborn. On the granite counter in the kitchen, I cut into the cheek and revealed a shining core, mostly fat with a comically small swoosh of pink meat. We fried small pieces in an enamel pan with olive oil, to make a pasta sauce. They tasted perfect.
I’m now on my third round of curing pork cheeks. Whenever I look at them, I feel a bit happier. Not because I anticipate eating them, or because I feel manly or sophisticated, but because they’re a desire realized. A small one, an ephemeral one, but a desire that started out as a thought and ended up on my dinner plate.
I’ve thought a lot about what my pork-cheek dream the other night meant. Some anxiety about the future, perhaps. A fear of adulthood, a dread of time, a sense of shame, I’m not really sure. I have many hopes for the future, but whether they’ll be realized I do not know. I think about this uncertainty constantly and uncomfortably. But I still have my cheeks hanging in the basement, a hope realized by nothing but air and time.
Guanciale (cured pork cheek)
Two pork cheeks, skin-on (Order them at your local butcher shop)
One half-cup of coarse kosher salt
One half-cup of brown sugar
One bunch of fresh thyme
Four cloves of garlic, crushed
One tablespoon of crushed peppercorns
Wash pork cheeks under warm water. In a bowl, mix together the salt and sugar. Rub the mixture vigorously into pork cheeks, making sure to cover them completely.
Place cheeks in a large plastic freezer bag. Add the thyme, garlic, pepper and any remaining salt and sugar, and place bag in refrigerator. Allow to sit for six days, turning bag over every two days to redistribute cure. The salt and sugar will begin pulling the moisture out of the cheeks.
After six days, remove cheeks from bag and discard any liquid. Give the cheeks a quick wash in warm water to remove excess cure.
With a sharp knife, puncture each cheek near the top and run a length of kitchen twine through the hole, tying it off to form a loop.
Hang the cheeks in any cool, dark place you have — a basement, a spare closet, even a garage. Place a pan of salted water underneath them so they don’t dry out too quickly. White mold is beneficial. Green or blue mold isn’t, and should be scrubbed off with a dab of vinegar.
After three weeks, the cheeks should have shrunk a bit and smell like a delicatessen. Cut off the skin and any yellowish fat, and the remaining flesh can be sliced up and fried like bacon, tossed into a pasta or added to vegetables.