Saturday, August 29, 2009

this little piggy

My mother is not a ham lover.

Bad actors are not the issue.

For religious reasons, pork simply was not an entree item in the Cotton manse when my brother and I were growing up. No ham. No pork chops. No bacon. (At least, very little.)

I have made up for that in my adult years. Pork has constituted over half of my protein during the past few years -- mostly in stir fry.

And I have come to be quite a ham connoisseur, as well. There are simply too many good hams to be wasting time on cheap water-filled cuts.

When I moved to Mexico, I was thrilled to discover it was the pork capital of North America. Mexicans love their pig products.

My first trip to the lunch meat counter, I found nothing but sliced ham for sandwiches -- in a bewildering cornucopia of choices.

The young man behind the counter directed me to a large hunk of ham that he lovingly sliced for me. It was great.

When my friends Roy and Nancy visited me in July, we often had at least one meal of ham sandwiches. They liked the meat.

Then, I did something very un-Mexican. Having found a good product, I winged it.

I was standing at the meat counter. A middle-aged middle class Mexican man was placing his order. I noticed that instead of the rectangular ham, his order was round.

Now, I am an adventurous sort. Before the counter man could put the round piece away, I told him I would like 300 grams of it.

He looked at me and asked: "Are you sure?" And I said: "Yes."

The correct answer would have been: "Why?" But I was in my "buy-like-a-local" mode. That was clue number one.

Clue number two was that the total due was less than half of the usual amount. Price is not always a quality guide in Mexico, so I headed off to the cash register.

Clue number three. When I paid the store owner, he looked at the meat and said: "You want this?"

By then, I was committed. I paid, and went all the way home -- where I made a ham sandwich with my 7-grain bread, mayonnaise, mustard, leaf lettuce, Swiss cheese, and cucumber.

With my first bite, I realized why I received the third degree from the store employees.

It was terrible. There was a vague taste of ham. But the meat tasted as if it had been ground, spiced, and reformed.

The next day, I bought new ham, and the store owner started immediately: "Didn't like it, eh?"

I asked him what it was. He said: "Ham."

And he then explained that the lower-priced ham is made very similar to hot dogs and bologna. The meat is smashed up, spiced, and formed into tubes. So, I had that part correct.

I had to ask then why the guy I saw buying the "ham" insisted on it.

The store owner was candid. He knew who I meant. But he said most of his Mexican customers prefer the tube ham. For the same reason they like hot dogs and bologna. They like the texture. They like the taste. And, he said, they also like it because it is less expensive. "We were a poor country for a long time."

This little piggy is not going to have any more of that ham. Nor is he going to have roast beef -- despite the little rhyme.

But he will have plenty of that delicious sliced ham that costs a bit more.

Because a day without a ham sandwich is like a day without pork rinds.


Constantino said...

This is one time that you don't do as in Rome......
The funny thing is when you walk into the deli counter area, you are greeted with 100's of packages, looking at you, but in reality there is only really about 10 choices. 3 manufacturers, and about 4 styles, and a few other odds and ends. I had the same ah ha, experience thinking that I would have a nice hot dog experience. Their hot dogs are horrible. Probably the same crap that filled your massive ham casing. So now I only get the better brands, and occasionally the head cheese, which is pretty good. I like the Zwan and San Rafael brands better than Fud. Next time get a few slices of each and do a taste test. Then stick by your choice!

Nice to know you are getting a little more adventurous. Next you will need to try the various creamas and cheeses......What ever you do , don't give Jiggs that cheap ham wannabe.

Brenda said...

Here I have trouble actually finding ham that is made from pork, the majority of it in the round tubes is made from turkey (pavo); yet it is difficult, other than Xmas, to find actual turkey to cook.

Alan said...

When pigs fly, I will stop eating ham. Now hot dogs is another item. Just today I got the following email warning from a doctor friend:

Ham, bacon, hot dogs, salami, and other processed meats have no place in a healthy diet for children says a study by the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF).

Will I stop eating ham? Never. Hot dogs, I now have an excuse to not eat them (except at Costco with sauerkraut!)

Anonymous said...

At the Chedraui where I shop in Chetumal there is a freestanding deli counter. Guessing, I would say that there are 25 linear feet of deli case with large chunks of deli meats in it. Do you think one could buy roast beef, turkey or pastrami? Not on your life...there are 25' of 'ham'....some say made with turkey, some made with chicken and some made with pork...I have yet to figure out how to tell the difference among them.

Then, if you tire of looking at all that 'ham', you could move along to 10 more linear feet of hot dogs...occasionally they have some Johnsonville products which are beef and pork dogs, but the rest of them are made of 'bird parts'...chicken and turkey.

Moving around the deli counter you now find yourself faced with about 20' of cheese....manchego in all of its incarnations, some gouda, some processed cheese and you are done. Admittedly, there is a small section with some imported Brie, camembert and Swiss with the concomitant prices for imported products.

While I have been in the States I have eaten all the things I can't buy in Mexico. When I go home, I will eat what I find and my life will be much simpler and cheaper by far. Only a few more days of $3.99 a pound lobster and then it is back to the land of yoghurt and ham. Kathe

Anonymous said...

I do miss the freshly cooked chicharones and the mexican ham. It seems much leaner than our hams.
Hey, two more reasons to visit Mexico.

Anonymous said...

at least you gave it a try! so you like chicharrones-huh? i grew up eating those and lots of pork-which is as much a cuban staple as black beans and rice. some of the best porkchops i ever ate were when we lived in sicily. their butcher shops are similar to the ones mexico-all fresh meat.

off to walking 15 mi. this morning, then 10 tomorrow. two more weeks and i'll be doing the real walk. i should be ready.

have a great weekend and enjoy some of that great pork for me ;-)


Felipe said...

I like ham too, but I have never seen really good ham in Mexico, certainly not like country ham you find in Georgia.

Note that it´s usually quite white here, which means you´re getting lots of fat pressed in.

Eat veggies. You´ll feel better.

Vanya said...

One word: pierna. Ask for the good quality pierna and you'll be ok. It makes great sandwiches on bolillos, and if you go to the happy cow on the corner of the alley, under the counter they have some cheese that they call cheddar (lol) but its good with the pierna. :-) Provecho!

Steve Cotton said...

Constantino -- As for cheese, during my first three weeks here, I tried about every variety I could find at the three local stores. Mexican cheeses impress me only for cooking. They are great for that. But for eating straight -- not so much. And then I ruined it all by buying a brick of Tillamook extra sharp cheddar. That reset the taste barrier.

Brenda -- I found a store that sells sliced turkey meat. Admittedly, it is lunch meat, but it is turkey, and it is OK.

Al -- I am not a big hot dog eater. Now and then, I would have a coney island at Lew's. But, like you, ham is another story.

Kathe -- You made me think what I would like to eat when I am in The States next month. That requires some serious consideration. Honey-baked ham is high on the list.

Francisco -- I think several commenters have nailed why Mexican ham seems leaner -- it is really turkey.

Teresa -- I actually do not like chicharrones. The closing was a nod to my grandmotgher (and the Florida orange juice growers).

Felipe -- One day I would like to see the actual ham bone that some of this ham comes off of. My suspicion is that it would gobble.

Vanya -- No bolillos for me. They taste like stale hamburger rolls. Several people have suggested I must be getting them from the wrong bakery. What is your suggestion?

Larry in Mazatlan said...

Jamon de pierna is about the closest you're going to get. Even then, ask for a taste because there can be a big difference. I've learned to always ask "tiene York?" They usually have it at the store I go to. Here, to get a real ham, you have to wait for the gringo holidays and then jump quick.


maria luz said...

All of you have touched on something we were just talking about the other day. The lack of good ham in our retirement, which is now coming on fast and furiously. We rarely partake of processed, flake or formed or otherwise meat, but when you gotta have a ham you want the real thing.

No matter what part of Mexico we are in we have found it darn near impossible to obtain any kind of a good porker except for guisados, carnitas, or cooked in the ground, as well as chops from the butcher, which are all delicious in their own right. And it never occurred to me to ask for pierna. Guess I am not as Mexican as I think I am.

I am curious and will request of those who know; do the Costcos in Mexico render the service of offering Hebrew National hot dogs at their snack counter to go with that sauerkraut like they do here in the U.S.? Or are they simply FUD.

Perdon, but I can't resist. FUD, on oxymoron.


Anonymous said...


Ask if they have head-cheese. It is pork-head meat in aspic, usually coming in a rectangular shaped block. Try a slice.

If they spice it correctly, it is some of the best eating around. When we lived in New Orleans we could get the Cajun head-cheese made out in the country.

A Nony Moose

Islagringo said...

I wish I could give you some advice, but I can't. I don't deal well with the pushy lines at our deli counter so B does the shopping there. I'm in charge of the regular meat counter.

Leslie Limon said...

Even after 9 years, my hubby and I still can't get over the terrible selection of hams available in Yahualica. Constantino is right, stick with San Rafael and Zwan. And stay away from FUD, VIVA and KIR!

I now have a craving for a Roast Beef sandwich.

Mexico Cooks! said...

"Un cuarto de San Rafael pierna, por favor." It's not fabulous, but it's better than most of the deli hams we've tried over the years.

Steve, which is the deli ham that you bought and liked? Inquiring minds want to know...


1st Mate said...

All this reminds me of a lesser-known movie Sofia Loren made. She played an naive Italian woman flying in to New York, smuggling a gourmet Sicilian ham; she would not let go of that ham for anything, even when facing jail and deportation. Clearly she believed that while the US had a lot to offer, a ham like that could not be found.

Odd that while it's hard to find a good (real) ham, Mexican bacon is great.

Nancy said...

I always wonder how the gigantic ham, cheese and hot dog selection the big stores carry could actually be sold quickly enough that the stock would still be good. Ugh! No thank you!

I am very careful to check pull dates on everything I buy. The hot weather here ages things faster and I imagine most of the time it is in a hot truck or warehouse.

I bought my first soy crumbles the other day, reconstituted them with V8 style juice and then cooked them up with onions and peppers for a delicious vegie taco. I bet you would have loved it, and better for you, too!

End of sermon.

Steve Cotton said...

Larry -- In Melaque, the counter has a choice of about four different "hams." But I will check to see if the owner can order York.

Maria Luz -- I have not yet made it to a Costco in Mexico. Just too far away to drive. Maybe someone else knows.

A Nony Moose -- I have tried head cheese in several countries. It is not terrible, but I do not particularly like it.

Islagringo -- That is one thing we do not have here -- pushy lines. I am told, though, that will change once winter -- and tourists -- start rolling in.

Leslie -- And you have now made me hungry for a roast beef sandwich -- with fresh horseradish.

Cristina -- I don't know the name He sees me and he slices it before I even request it.

1st Mate -- If I could get my hands on a Honey-baked ham, I would probably be the same way.

Nancy -- You are so correct about how fast meat products deteriorate here. I have had lunch meat go bad in one day. The same with bananas. I bought a small hand the other day. In the hour walk home (I wandered about a bit) in the aftrernoon heat, each of the bananas touching the outside of the bag had literally cooked and split open.

I doubt you will convert me to vegetarianism. I love my meat. And I have never found anything that tastes as good as it. However, I eat very little of it. For the past five years, I have started eating more stir-fried food, and the meat content gets less and less. I am making a rice and vegetable dish tonight that will have only a handful of leftover chicken in it. (That is, if the chicken is still good. It is from Sunday -- or was it Saturday?)

Glenn said...

Sandwich au one of the few French phrases that I know--but it served me well in France, and even in Quebec. In Mexico, I'd go for the carnitas (only the lean meat such as pork tenderloin).

Steve Cotton said...

Glenn -- If it turns out that my "ham" is nothing but ground turkey, I may be as close to lean as I am going to get. I just suspect there is much -- MUCH -- more involved.

Laurie said...

I despise ham, as my mom thought pork was food from the gods. However your last line is wonderful. That should be the title of your new book about Mexico. And Hondurans love pork rinds, or as we say here, chicharonnes. I like them mixed with fried plaintains.

Steve Cotton said...

If I did, I would get kicked out of my gourmet group. Wait a minute! I'm not in a gourmet group now. That was in Portland.

Anonymous said...

I don't think there are foodies in Mexico. At least not native-born ones. Which is a pity. Mexico has plenty of interesting dishes, but the execution often leaves something to be desired.

However, on the ham front, I do take advantage of one thing when I'm in Mexico, ham that could get me thrown in jail here stateside: Jamón Iberico.

You can get it at Costco, or upscale markets. I've seen it in Chedraui in Mexico City. Though it's about 200 pesos for 20 grams or so (at Costco's cut-rate prices), it's worth every peso.

A little local melon, and bottle of red wine, and that ham is dandy.

Saludos desde el norte,

Kim G
Boston, MA
Where we really don't need the federal government to "protect" us from French cheese and Spanish ham. Really.

Babs said...

You can buy a Kirkwood brand honey baked hams at Costco, if you have one in Manzanillo. They are relatively large but I cook it, invite friends over and then freeze the rest of it. Look for it!

Steve Cotton said...

Kim -- If there are foodies in Mexico, they must be eating in French and Italian restaurants. Mexican food is good for filling you up -- and out. But I have noticed, it is based on the same few ingredients reworked into different dishes. Too bad Christopher Columbus did not bring Italian cooks with him. That would have been a cultural boon.

Babs -- No Costco in Manzanillo. No Sam's Club The closest Costco is in Puerto Vallarta or Guadalajara. And I am not going to drive three or four hours simply to pick up a ham. Cheddar cheese? That is a different story. The dog's limitations make trips like that impossible.

Brenda said...

We have turkey lunch meat here also, it is so so. What I would like is to be able to buy just a turkey breast (raw not sandwich type). They had them at Soriana one year at Xmas and they were excellent. last year, no hay, maybe this year? They do have whole turkeys for sale at xmas but neither of us likes brown meat, we only like the breast meat, so I never buy a whole bird.
Oh well.

Inmigrante Rentista said...

And I now I know what they did with all the Whiskas recalled Beef and Chicken flavored Temptations treat packages.

Steve Cotton said...

Brenda -- I would decapitate the turkey, if I could get a fresh breast. When I return t Oregon ext month, I am going to cook one.

Immigrante Rentista -- Many a truth is said in jest.