An Education in Meat

This is not a story about how I made Hoppin’ John on Saturday. This is not a story about good luck and cornbread and spreading the American gospel. This is not a story about watching people set off fireworks out of wine bottles of the stroke of midnight, 2012.

All this trouble for one ham hock.

This is a story about how my cooking education apparently has a HUGE hole in it, and that hole is called “meat.” I blame all my vegan and veg friends.

I’ve been in France for more than three months and my search for a ham hock was only my second trip to a butchery. Even though I looked up the appropriate words beforehand, I still stumbled through the transaction blushing like a schoolgirl. No, only veal shank. No, only pork ribs. By the time I found what I was looking for in butcher shop no. 3, I realized it wasn’t my French that was killing me, but my confusion and uncertainty among the different cuts of meat and other products.

The counter is so long, and packed tightly. Some of the cuts of meat still look like animals, and some just look bloody. Dried sausages hanging like batons from the ceiling, turkeys with their heads folded neatly across their backs, a wide selection of patés, bright red slabs of veal and rolls of beef tied with strings into Michelin-man form. I am a noob about all of them, and clearly need to spend more time admiring meat charts. To make my meat journey even more confusing, French cuts of meat are slightly different from an American or English cut. The hock, which I looked up on Food Network, is made of the lowest part of a pig leg. Mine was not smoked, but sitting in a basin raw with a couple of buddies. It must have also come of the king of pigs, because I had to ask the butcher to cut it in thirds to get a piece that would fit in with the black eyed peas.

While the butcher was very nice, next time I will make sure to just go to Kneuss & Fils, the biggest butchery I’ve seen in all of Epinal. I’ve been in Payless shoe stores smaller than this place. And maybe I should buy a meat book to go along with my growing cheese compilation.

Worship at the alter of meat.

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5 responses to “An Education in Meat

  1. Lol, I loved this post. Reminded me of the time I went into a Spanish supermarket and asked the guy behind the meat counter for a human shoulder! I was only after a shoulder of lamb to make a tagine, but he laughed at me so much he even fetched his colleague from out back and asked me to repeat my mortifying mistake before explaining what I should have been saying. The bad news is, I can’t remember the word he said I should have used and am highly likely to repeat my ‘human shoulder’ mistake on future meat-buying occasions leading to either hilarity/disturbing trend-setting/arrest.

    PS Watch out for the meat aisle in some French supermarkets which is meant for you to buy cheap and cook up your own dog food instead of using the tinned variety. I have heard they are out there and live in fear of that looming faux pas too.

    • Human shoulder! Haha, that’s great. I’ll definitely keep my eye out for dog food, though I’m not even sure the higher quality “steak haché” in a grocery store is really what I would consider high quality.

  2. Hi,
    I like your post. I definitely think you get a lot more enjoyment out of cooking meat if you know more about the different cuts. Not only does it help with knowing the best way to cook it, but it makes a huge difference when you are buying. You know what things ought to look like, what is good quality and what isn’t and it will probably also make you investigate a wider variety of cuts. I would highly recommend The River Cottage ‘Meat’ book – it’s an excellent read as well as being a great reference on meat cuts and recipes.

  3. when I’m in a new place where I’m not as familiar with the local fare, I bring a local to help me with the choosing and ordering. tends to make for less embarrassing moments as only my friend laughs at me instead of the whole store! 😉

    • Haha, it’s a good idea! But in France I do everything I can to do it myself–you learn a lot more, even if it’s mostly to be wary of your pride.

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