When I was a child I only had Prosciutto during the holidays. It was used in the individual antipastos my mother made for us on her fine china plates that she had bought in High School years before she even met my father. We ate in the dining room on holidays and I was always told by my mother I could not eat like I did in the kitchen because if I did, I would unquestionably ruin her prized, wall to wall, gold shag carpet (it came with a rake).
I was, and still am, an insufferable slob when I eat, but having developed some dining etiquette, I know enough not to handle my food with my bare hands or stick my nose in my dinner when dining with others in public. But when eating alone, I’m a wild man, a prehistoric, forkless beast. One of the reasons I adore Prosciutto so much is because I mostly eat it with my hands, ripping thinly sliced strands off deli paper and wrapping it around bits of bread and dunking it in Olive Oil. Sometimes when I am feeling sophisticated, I eat it with a fork and knife as I was taught by a nameless Roman woman back in 1982. Either way, Prosciutto is my pink gold, my friend and comforter extraordinaire.
When I was a small boy I was fascinated by the thinness of the Prosciutto and much to the chagrin of my parents and siblings I’d hold it up to my face and stick it to my lips and lick it. I’d then wrapped it around my fingers and plop it in my mouth. Oh, how I loved the salty, delicate sweetness that tastes like no other and oh, how I longed for Prosciutto between holidays.
When I turned 16 in 1978 I realized the reason we had Prosciutto only on the holidays. It was too expensive to have on a regular basis. I thought it was a holiday item unavailable during the rest of the year. My father was a school teacher and in the span of ten years my siblings and I were in braces and two were in college. Prosciutto was an extravagance. But when I started working at the city hospital moving medical records in large carts to one side of the hospital to another I discovered that it was possible to expand my Prosciutto consumption past the limits of three times a year. A co-worker of mine, a Vietnam Veteran who raved about his dire hatred for Jane Fonda (little did he know I’d ran to any movie she was in) and who spoke endlessly about his acid trips, took me on our dinner break to a newly opened Italian Deli called, “That’s Italian” located down the hill from where I grew up. It was a naked space with only a deli case filled with dried cured meats. From that day forward I became a Prosciutto eating swine and there was no stopping me.
On Saturday afternoons I’d buy half pounds of Parma Prosciutto and sit in the Abigail Adams Cairn across from where I grew up and peel the thin slices off the white deli paper and hold my head back and dangle the cured ham over my mouth slowly lowering into my pie hole, savoring every bite. I was living the good life. La Dolce Vita!
When I was 19 and a student a Johnson & Wales University we were brought on a field trip to the D- Company where they made a popular domestic Prosciutto in P— Rhode Island. My fellow students and I were shown the many different and impeccably clean rooms where each step in the process of making the sacred meat took place. The procedure as far as I could tell was all very scientific and important and explained by an official looking man in a white coat. He reminded me of the Professor on the TV show Gilligan’s Island. I stood in the back and snickered, obsessing and hoping for some free samples. Onward the tour went to the first room where pig’s legs were buried in bins of salt to draw out blood. Another room was for cutting out the bones. Onto a further room where the meat was washed and pressed into specially made metal molds, these molds kept the shape of the Prosciuttos uniformed. Into another room where the mold was opened and the meat was taken out and hooked on racks that were on wheels. These racks were brought to other rooms where the temperature was specifically set for proper drying, the air mimicked mountain air, cool and dry. Although still obsessing about a free sample I was impressed with how each step in making prosciutto was carefully, meticulously planned out. Soon, I wondered off alone, searching for the room where I was certain platters of thinly sliced Prosciutto awaited me. (I most definitely would have been the first kid booted out of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.) On my own, I marveled at the procedures taking place around me, staring at the men cutting out the bones, washing salt off the meat, pressing the meat in molds and hooking them on racks. I delighted in the hanging meats and I was convinced I had found nirvana. When stumbling onto a test kitchen I was given slices of Prosciutto by a man and from that moment on I remember no more, I think I passed out from pure joy.
In 1982 I had turned 20, it was a year after I had visited Prosciutto factory. I was restless and bored and so I took a semester off from Johnson & Wales University and went to Europe that fall for three months back-packing with my friend Jean. I had grand romanticized images of Europe and thought I would be living in a Fellini movie once I was in Rome.
Rome was my first foreign country I had ever stepped foot in. I had never been that far away from my parents. I was a true homebody, scared, intimidated and fearful. I come from a small city south of Boston and I put the “ P” in provincial. I was having severe culture shock. I didn’t know a stitch of Italian and we had no credit cards and only 900 dollars each for three months. I recall one of my first days in Rome sitting in an outdoor cafe in Piazza Navona struggling to order. I was hungry and tried and wanted to crawl under a Ruin. Miraculously I noticed across from me a beautiful older woman whose lips were colored with scarlet lipstick, her hair was black, flowing and she was dressed to max, a character from a Fellini movie indeed. Before her was a plate of thinly sliced Parma Prosciutto fanned out scrupulously, its pink meat and white fatty edges glowing under the Italian sun, it was an edible work of art. She ate the Prosciutto with a knife and fork that clanged musically on her plate as she cut and rolled the precious meat around her fork. I could almost taste the salty sweetness as she placed it in her mouth. She ate with such elegance, precession and seriousness that anyone with half a noodle could clearly see she was eating something incredibly special. I indicated to the waiter that I wanted exactly what that woman was eating, he understood and within moments I too was eating a plate of Prosciutto under the bright Roman sun using a fork and knife and I was home.
Days later in my grandmother’s hometown of San Donato Val di Comino located in the Province of Frosinone in the Italian region of Lazio, about 68 miles east of Rome, Jean and I made a plan to venture around the hometown of my grandmother looking for people who might know my family name.
San Donato was built on the side of a mountain and when walking or taking a bus into town the approaching view is of the many white stucco homes with orange roof tops that appear to be stacked on top of one another. This breathtaking town oversees a magnificent and massive emerald valley of olive trees and farmland and is beautifully subjected to the continuous shifting of white low hanging clouds that cast purple shadows. I started to feel a range of emotions because each corner I turned, I heard the voice of my grandmother telling me tales of her youth. Homesickness had arrived again.
We spoke to people the best we could, stating my grandmother’s name, but we had no luck. As afternoon approached gray clouds started moving in, there was a roar of thunder and a rain storm hit. I had never seen it rain so forcefully before. A small river of pulsating water came towards us and made its way down the long winding road and toward the valley. Jean and I ran into a doorway and met an albino woman who knew a bit of English, we smoked cigarettes with her while watching the rain fall. We gave her our American cigarettes to try and she gave us her Italian ones. Our smoke mingled with the strong scent of grapes, it was overpoweringly good, fruity, earthy and sweet. Soon pure white clouds moved in and shifted, a distant sound of thunder assured us the storm had passed and the sun was visible again. Our new friend led us to an elderly man who she said had family in Boston. We greeted him in front of his house that over looked the valley, he was tying up the braches of what I think was a laurel tree. He was limited in his English, but we managed to communicate. He wore a black cap and was unshaven and tiny, but solid and strong. He told me he knew my grandmother’s brother, Loretto, Loretto. We all nodded and giggled and I said Loretto repeatedly and he parroted me, Loretto, Loretto, we could not say much more and we smiled at our lack of being unable to fully communicate. He offered us homemade wine from a bottle that he kept on his kitchen table, we nodded yes and he poured the rich purplish wine into small glasses that were a tad larger than shot glasses, the wine was thick, rich, aromatic and dry and from a shelf over his small table he pulled down and unraveled a loaf of bread wrapped in oil spotted newspaper, the bread had a thin layer of Prosciutto inside. I was home. Prosciutto.
I eat Prosciutto most of the time plan on a plate like that Roman woman did back in 1982 or layered in Italian bread lightly brushed with Olive Oil like my other friend did in San Danato. On occasion, I’ll cracked red and black peppercorns on it, more than often I’ll eat it with fresh buffalo mozzarella and Virgin Olive Oil. I very rarely cook with it, except of course when making the Easter Pie Pizza Gaina (or Chena) a Southern Italian savory pie with cold cuts and cheese. Some people think Prosciutto fat is a necessity in a good tomato sauce or layered in a Braciole (rolled, stuffed meat) or creamed based pasta sauces. I don’t mind it cooked, but I don’t love it. I’ll like it on its own the way I feel it ought to be; super thin, dry, salty, sweet, luxurious, delicious and full of safe, comforting memories and whether using fingers or fork, Prosciutto is divine and eternal.