Jerky couture

| 03 Mar 2014 | 04:02

I am a child of the 1980s: the era of the gas station Slim Jim. I have lived through the dark age of the art of charcuterie. Growing up, I didn’t know anyone who made jerky, except – a memory emerges – a family friend who lives in the backwoods gave me a strip of venison jerky from a deer he’d bagged. As for salami, who even knows what it is, exactly, other than really good with brie?

My ignorance is aberrant in the history of humans. Meat preservation and preparation have been a normal part of life for millennia. Ancient Egypt’s King Tut was buried with 48 boxes of mummified meat. Native American tribes stored food in a network of poles lashed into the top of their shelters, where exiting smoke created a hanging larder of smoked meat, berries and vegetables. Communal hog killin’s used to be as big as Christmas Day in the south.

For Virginia farmer and author Joel Salatin, those hog killin’s ended in 1985. “It finally got too hard to get enough people together, what with Little League and soccer games, movies and night shift at the plant. The old folks gradually died off and the young people were too glued to the television to care. Now when they want tenderloin they go to Wal-Mart or Kroger.”

We outsourced meat preparation and forgot it – until the “pink slime” exposé brought it briefly back to our attention.

Then charcuterie, that branch of cooking devoted to prepared meat products, popped back up, everywhere and all at once. It was local and pastured and small batch and, well, just like before. The dark age is over. Meet your local charcutiers.

The salami mechanic

A Dutch tinkerer reinvents an Italian tradition

“Do I dial 9-1, and keep my finger on one?” Neal Nederland wondered as he prepared to take a bite of his homemade salami.

For six weeks, Nederland, an airplane mechanic, had been watching as the encased meat hanging in his garage grew a coat of white mold. From what he’d read, mold is good: white mold is good, green mold is very bad.

That first bite tasted … expensive, like something you might drop a lot of money on at a gourmet grocery store.

Eight years later, he’s churning out 125 pounds of salami a year, plus 100 pounds of jerky and capicola ham, which is like prosciutto, in the basement of his house in rural Lafayette, N.J.

“You can buy prosciutto for $20 a pound, or you can make it for $1.17 a pound,” he said.

On a Wednesday in January, Nederland, 67, was prepping 20 pounds of ground pork and venison in his basement kitchen. (Semi-retired, he now takes Wednesdays off.) It looks like a restaurant kitchen, with a six-burner stove, stainless steel three-bay sink, deli-style meat slicer, sausage grinder and incubator oven.

He mixed the meat in a Kitchen Aid with spices, sugar, wine, salt and a starter culture of bacteria. After spooning the mixture into a device called a sausage maker, he wound green tape around each of his fingers.

“This is when you feel like a fighter,” he said. “You tape up.” Without the tape, his fingers get bloodied by the string with which the sausage ends are tied.

Cranking the handle of the sausage maker with one hand, he used the other hand to guide the meat into the collagen casing.

At the end of each link, he tied a colored bead. Each color corresponds with a certain recipe so he’ll know two years from now that the yellow bead is the Italian-style salami stick.

The larger salamis require a second person to hold as he tieds them off. Nederland usually enlists his wife, Gail Nederland, for this task, which totally grosses her out. When he mentioned that he was going to need help, she ran off to the grocery store.

Once the meat had been encased, Nederland hung the sausages to incubate in a proofing oven, the kind you’d see filled with bagels at a bakery. In 12 hours, he would take them out and hang them on a rack in the garage.

“I tell everybody it’s a little bit of exhaust from the car that adds the extra flavor,” he joked.

Nederland brings a salami platter everywhere he goes. His salami has less fat, around 25 to 30 percent, than the commercially made stuff, which is about half fat. “I’d like to say it’s a health food but I can’t quite go that far.”

Nederland, who’s Dutch, picked up this Italian tradition from his daughter’s husband’s family. They hail from Pennsylvania coal country, where there’s a long history of making traditional ham salamis called “soupies,” or soppressatas. His daughter’s in-laws now come over to Nederland’s house every winter to prepare a year’s supply of meat. This year, instead of soupies, they want to try making Nederland’s salami.

The mad conductor

In 60 years, this delicatessen has never been busier

Quaker Creek Store, 11 am. Men in Muck boots and camo make trips to their pick-ups, carrying cardboard boxes with their names on the sides. Inside is venison jerky custom-made for hunters.

A woman peers into the display case at an assortment of meats that draws customer from four states. There’s cajun Andouille, jalapeno cheddar frankfurters, spicy cabanossi, thuringer bratwurst, veal bratwurst. Bob Matuszewski Jr. appears, talking fast. He’s the owner. He compares himself alternately to an orchestra conductor and the chief of a military unit.

“We’re in the middle of a whole steer,” he said, leading the way downstairs. He switched to a slow, deliberate Spanish to give directions to employees as he passed. We entered a prep room and there it was, “a whole steer from nose to tail, for a farmer in Montgomery.”

One aproned man was trimming steaks, another was sending trimmings through a meat grinder into plastic tubs. In an adjacent room, 300 pounds of beef jerky strips were drying in two industrial ovens. Matuszewski lifted the lid off a tub of bobbing bratwurst.

“Everything’s on an upswing, there’s no ifs and or buts about it,” he said. Their most popular item is still kielbasa, but “one thing that’s really on an upswing is duck breast pastrami. It’s new… new to us. Folks are looking for change.”

Matuszewski, 49, has been at this since he was a kid. “I was kind of like an indentured servant. My mother would say, ‘Go help your grandfather.’”

A chef who emigrated from Poland, his grandfather “did everything. It was Amish-like,” said Matuszewski. “As a kid in school in the mid-80s I was actually embarrassed to bring friends home because we had animals. I’m not talking six chickens. We had 200 chickens. You had to tend to ‘em. Even though I didn’t want to do it, I was still absorbing. Right now I’m playing around with drying herbs, which he did back then.”

Matuszewski sources vegetables from farms a stone’s throw from his door. “Something as simple as a bologna sandwich, when you have local lettuce and tomato, it takes that bologna to another level. We do a chicken sausage with spinach, tomato, Monterey jack and honey mustard. It’s just bangin’.”

He has an agreement with one farmer: he lets himself into the farmer’s walk-in fridge and takes what he needs, often bartering prepped food for produce.

He extends the same gentleman’s credit to his own regulars, keeping tabs in a simple notebook without signatures. “I have a 60-year lineage with some of these people. When I submit invoices at the end of the month, they’re as good as gold.”

Matuszewski and his family live above the store in Pine Island, N.Y., and you might say he’s obsessed with what he does. He says so. He wants more space, more parking, “and I would love to farm again, raise the animals we sell and the vegetables we use.”

As for the kitchen, “I have a lot up my sleeve yet. Pâtés and tureens. We’re starting to see folks who seek out the better things.”

A hot & spicy love story

Many stars aligned and a hobby became a family business

Brian Gerri had been working as a reverse mortgage consultant for 12 years and he’d just about had it. “My wife and I were sitting down talking: What should we do?”

Let’s start a business, they decided. Something on the side.

But what? Well, Gerri liked making jerky at home, in a little round dehydrator he’d gotten at Macy’s. His wife, Ushanee Gerri, mixed up a marinade she usually used for barbecue, using some combination of jarred chili oil from the Asian supermarket, soy sauce, vinegar, ketchup – they can’t quite remember now. Hot & Spicy Szechuan, they ended up calling it. They brought it to parties and it was a hit. They had stumbled upon a gaping unfilled niche in the snack industry.

Then they had a son, followed by twin girls, and they took an intermission until 2010, when they fired the dehydrator back up. In 2011, Brian quit working for Wells Fargo, and Cactus Pete’s became the full-time family business.

With three young kids, the move was a huge leap of faith. But leaps of faith had worked out for them before.

Let’s rewind, to Valentine’s Day, 2001. Brian, a Jersey boy through and through, met Ushanee Maglaya, who lived in the Philippines, on a dating site. Three months later, he bought a plane ticket to the Philippines. His family assumed he had gone insane. A week after that, he bought a ring at a pawn shop, got down on one knee on the beach and asked Ushanee to marry him. At which point she started to cry.

“You scared me!” she recalled.

She said yes.

The suburbs were lonely for Ushanee at first. For a few years, she was afraid to drive so was often housebound. But she overcame that hurdle, and she worked on her English.

Fast forward: Brian and Ushanee, both 42, have found their own space in Hewitt, N.J., with a commercial kitchen. They of course sell jerky, which Brian makes 40 pounds of each day, but Cactus Pete’s is also an eatery with a fusion menu that includes sliders and Southeast Asian spring rolls called lumpia. Brian gets there early each morning, slices meat and loads up trays to get them into the dehydrators before opening the doors. Ushanee chats up customers while offering samples and is the life of the store. They both man the kitchen at lunchtime. The couple’s identical five-year-old daughters nestle on cushions underneath the counter and swivel on stools.

They sell jerky at farmers markets, street fairs and festivals, where their seven-year-old son sometimes works the cash register. They buy some of their beef from Lowland Farms in Warwick and use habanero peppers from R&G Produce in Pine Island. By happy accident, it turns out that the soy sauce they use is local, too.

It was “some Asian brand we’d never heard of,” said Brian. Hoping to buy it in bulk, they looked up Wan Ja Shan, and discovered it was brewed, of all places in the world, 30 miles away in Middletown.

What’s it like working together? “I’m sad when my wife leaves the door,” said Brian. “I’m happy when she comes in the door. We love it. We have more time together.”

He looked at Ushanee, who was quiet.

“Are you crying?” he asked.

“Of course,” she said. “I’m happy.”