Hold Onto Wonder. It is the Best Resistance
Yesterday, I harvested a 1-year-old Culatello ham, and it was an utter failure. As soon as I cut into the bladder I had stuffed it in last February, I knew. I could see it, smell it, feel it on my fingers. I whispered a curse. Then, I explored the rot. With my knife, I cut under it, endeavoring to salvage a few pieces. I shaved and scoured, ending up with a palm-sized cut, probably 8 ounces, with decent lean and fat. I put it on the slicer. I produced beautiful, thin servings. I sniffed. I waited. I tasted.
Into a paper bag I gathered all 6 pounds of lovingly curated food, and threw it into the waste can. And then I quietly cleaned up the mess of string and dried bladder, and I went to my desk and began crafting recipes for the next day, when I would start over again.
It’s funny, the things nature teaches you. And it’s amazing, what curiosity will enable you to withstand. I re-traced the history of that ham as I went through my whole Sunday, making sure I had followed the proper steps. Wondering if I had done something wrong. I spent an equal amount of time plotting my salami Appalachia, which is an ode to mountain charcuterie, and a decent portion of brain space was also occupied by my wishing I had saved some of the rot, and stuck it under my microscope. Just to see.
I figure half the reason I do what I do is for the mystery. I mean, that certainly wasn’t the original intention, but the wonder is what gets me up in the morning. I started farming to tend to soil, and to raise the bar on good food. I never knew I would keep farming just to find out more about nature, or to keep myself mindful in a chaotic world. I started cutting meat because I wanted to understand the correlation between the way an animal lives and the character of it’s fat and meat. I never knew I would keep doing it because the answer would be different almost every time, and that the wondering about farming would combine with the wondering about butchery into an dizzying wheel of options, many of which I will never have the chance to test. I started making charcuterie because I wanted to preserve, and evolve my own concept of flavor. I didn’t imagine I would ever teach it, or that the classes would go on to fuel communities buying food together and empowering families and seeding justice and cooperation from farm to plate. It is the outcomes of this work that I did not foresee that have been the most stirring, and by far the most inspiring. I am persistently, gratefully in awe.
I remember, pulling the bladder off of that rotten ham, and preparing for what lay within it, I heard a small voice inside of me say: You’re not here in control. You’re just here to witness. When I talk about charcuterie in my classes, or any fermentation for that matter, I like to remind students that while we have a lot of scientific knowledge about these culinary processes, and that knowledge informs our practice, our science cannot measure the synergy within the curing food. That part, as we say in class, is almost none of our business. So. It is quite possible that I didn’t do anything wrong in the processing of that ham. I think it is more likely that I did, but just consider that what’s almost as exciting as a delicate shaving of perfectly cured ham, is that I might have done everything right, and it still didn’t work. And I might never know why.
As I pondered the proper amount of sage and smoke for my Appalachia project, I began to challenge myself. I am reminded that one of the reasons charcuterie exists is because people needed it. They didn’t have a choice but to put food by. In other words, there was a time when a woman might stuff a ham into a bladder as one act in a series of acts of necessity that drove her day. And it may fail, but that there was no luxury of wonder to ponder, either privately or out loud. So I thought about that all day, too. Is it an extravagance to know a ham has rotted and not know why? To chalk out a vague lesson in care and precision, and pontificate about the fascination of natural mystery? I heard the astrophysicist Natalie Batalha talking about this recently. She was grappling with the inherent privilege that is required for scientific discovery. And since I like her so, I took it. And I sat at my desk over sage and salt, and felt sorry for how thrilling a failure could be.
But today, I woke up changed. I went to bed reading about US air strikes in Syria, and dreaming a thousand questions about how it feels to be unsafe. The most recent thing I’ve done before writing this is watch my kids bound reluctantly toward free education, (one of them bounded enthusiastically even though his shoes were wet), after eating their favorite cereal for breakfast and getting licks from their puppy. So, it was necessary that I drove the road home wondering if there is space for mystery when there is not room for hope.
If you’re not empowered, is there beauty in the unsolved? Value in curiosity? Grounding in discovery? Joy in the unexplained? If I actually take a moment to consider how a Rohingya mother gets through her day, or a Syrian father chooses to leave home, it seems as though raw wonder might be it. I am not sure if one can survive tyranny without an inkling of how random tyranny actually is, considering all else. The wonder is that you’re in it, but that somewhere there is beauty, and the large looming essence of what is not explained, and you might find it, or grab it, only briefly. You might get to look.
Perhaps Batalha is right in that it takes massive privilege to wonder out loud and be heard. But wrong in that wondering quietly, and wondering for your own propulsion, is maybe the only empowering thing left. I consider that in the absence of security, the persistence of mystery that is indifferent to the human species, and all of its ugliness or grace, may be the only hope left. And in a culture that does not reward curiosity, and in a world where people are kept uncertain, sheer wonder and awe may be the final strand of freedom that our human hearts can know.
My life seems to revolve around this—a reclamation of wonder as the most foundational revolutionary act. Anyone can do it, as suddenly and as long as she chooses. It requires no politics, it cares nothing of your sexual identity, and it requires, in its most charming of ways, no shouting. No opinion. For wonder, and mystery, and the enchantment of that which is none of your business, is simply outside of the obsession that is self.
Wonder can’t be owned! It can’t even be feared! Oh, sweet, sweet subversion! Nearly everything we encounter in our culture is programming us to fear. And so teaching charcuterie, microscopy, or gardening, to anyone who dares to be curious, feels like a way of peeling back that fearful skin. How else will we win, people? How else will we overcome trauma, or terror, than by slowly, and subversively grabbing hold of the threads of the world that stir up beauty and connection, and carefully learning to seek their survival? This is the importance of poetry, sun on leaves, lichen, children, music and love and art. The way these things tap into the wonder of the spirit is the only thing that will keep us moving. This is why charcuterie practice is empowering, and connected. Even when you fail.
Yesterday I sent a microscope photo to my mentor. It was of a small orb I found in compost tea sprouting a tiny little nub. I asked if it was an amoeba emerging from its cyst, or a fungal spore sprouting. She said probably the spore, but then she said, One of the things I like about this business is that every now and then, we, against all odds, happen upon a little event that goes on all the time, but, realistically, no one ever sees.
The privilege is to be alive. To have come about out of some smashing of stars and have the ability to wonder at all. Without wonder, without fungal spores, rotting hams, or the way wind lifts seeds, it’d be all stupid YouTube comments and too many Ugg boots and I would forget how to be thankful and kind.
In the bathroom of our old house, there is a built-in cabinet with a swivel lock. We open it for almost everyone who visits, because inside of it is a wooden ironing board on stout 1935 hinges, and people almost always enjoy the quaintness of that old thing. In my mind I am conceiving artwork to adorn it. When my dear friends came over last weekend, I told them this. I said, “I’m thinking of putting some hidden art in there. You know, to reward the curious.” But curiosity has rarely been lionized in history, and rather has been blamed for the many evils in the world. And so, as I click through images to paint on the ironing board’s old surface, I cannot seem to land on anything that feels appropriately rewarding. I’ll have to keep thinking, I tell myself. The world is so incredible. So unbelievable. I am at peace, taking the time it will take, divining the best depiction of that world to hide in my old pink bathroom.
Perhaps, I’ll paint the flowery-looking miscrocropic hyphae of Aspergillus oryzae, or koji, my favorite mold. The way it looks under a scope, you can almost understand how koji can act like salt and sugar at the same time. Or maybe I’ll paint on there the meaning of wasps, since it took me over thirty years to find a love for those sharp insects. Or I could collage the old cabinet with magnolia leaves, which are fallen in my yard at this moment, and look like the finest leather. Or we could fill it with prisms. Or we could fill it with honeycomb. Or we could pin in beetles and butterflies, and feathers, for their intricate intrigue.
In my last few charcuterie intensives, there have been whole families in attendance. This has been one of the most unexpected, and rewarding pieces of my work, watching families bond over the wonder of good food. In my last class, there was a nineteen year old with his father, and that kid helped me remember that the wonders never cease. As we tied salamis, and cooked lunch, and fried pork rinds, and learned about bacteria, he brought up Shakespeare, and Spongebob, and Latin, and questions about college. At one point, I stopped the class just to say how glad I was that he was there. It was his curiosity, his openness, that brought so much more to that class than any of us could have imagined. I believe we were all the better for it.
And so, for him, for all of us, I’m posting this. I’m putting up beautiful pictures of my failed culatello, and lodging a humble argument for wonder, as the human right that goes with the human privilege of existing. Hold onto wonder. It is the best resistance. Keep your eye on everything which does not participate in human-centered shenanigans, and you will be delivered, even if you fail. Laud curiosity, lean into awe. Perhaps, such a skill will save us. Perhaps, in the bathroom, on the underside of the ironing board, I’ll paint a bright picture of Pandora holding her jar, and if one goes so far as to fold the ironing board down, they’ll find a beautiful rendition of life and death, of horror and beauty, entwined. The paper wasp, and its parasitized prey. The magnolia leaf. The rotten ham. The scratch and sniff nicotiana and the wings of the hawkmoth. And Aspergillus crawling over all of it and erasing it, slowly, into something else.