By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 25, 2011; 11:01 AM
Charcutepalooza! Shar-coo-teh-pah-LOOZ-ah. The name practically rolls off the tongue while you consider all it might entail. Cured meat and good times. A group meat-and-greet. A concert to salute salumi.
Twitter and food blogger pals Cathy Barrow and Kim Foster are not sure about that last concept, but it's early yet. Their "year of meat" project is less than six weeks old, and developments are unfolding daily. But it's already a prime example of new culinary education where pros don't lead the pack, newbies aren't afraid to join in and no classroom time is required.
As of press time, 180 people with blogs, including some halfway around the world, had signed on to tackle a recipe each month, or as often as they feel like sharing, from Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn's 2005 "Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing." Barrow chose the book as a reference guide for methodology and technique. She and Foster will be available on Twitter and via e-mail for support the whole way through, with, as it turns out, plenty of chefs and experts who know their rillettes and mortadella.
"We feel like we're curating," Foster says. "And Twitter is an amazing social vehicle for this."
"It started out as fun, and it's going to continue that way," Barrow says. "But this has instantly become a powerful online community, with an enormous array of experience."
Plus a porky logo to post on bloggers' Web sites, possible Charcutepalooza butchers' aprons, temporary tattoos and an out-of-the-blue offer of a grand-prize week at a cooking school in Gascony.
The meat wagon is rolling.
Early on, Northwest Washington landscape designer Barrow (pronounced "BAR-o"), 53, and New York ghostwriter Foster, 45 (The Yummy Mummy), contacted Ruhlman, a Cleveland food writer and cookbook author, to fill him in. Fine, he said. Now he's stoked.
"In an era of fast and easy food barraging us from page and screen, why is Charcutepalooza such a compelling idea?" he asked by e-mail. "This is a book devoted to animal fat and salt - star bugaboos in American food paranoia; and, as Amazon noted in its review, some recipes take days, even months to complete. And if you don't do them right, they could even kill you."
The project is about taking the scare factor out of preserving meat at home, the women say. It's a logical next step for DIYer Barrow, whose Mrs Wheelbarrow's Kitchen blog snagged thousands of new visitors after her canning prowess was featured on NPR last September. She and Foster have long been committed to sourcing local, humanely raised meat for their respective households: Barrow and her husband; Foster, her husband and two young children.
Charcutepalooza, along the lines of yet different from cookbook meetups such as Daring Bakers and French Fridays With Dorie, sprang from a simple conversation. Foster offhandedly said the cellar of her weekend "shack" was cold and humid enough to cure meat in; Barrow said, well, that's easy enough to do. "Do you? . . . Can you?" turned into "We should," and they did. Foster came up with the goofy, intriguing name. Now they can take credit for at least one vegetarian changing her ways (the blogger at Eat Drink Man Woman Dogs Cat) and a young mother/apartment dweller temporarily repurposing her baby's room, hanging wrapped duck breasts from the mobile over the crib (Saint TigerLily).
To keep things manageable, Barrow won't add any more names to the official blogroll after Tuesday. But participants don't have to have blogs of their own to join in; they can follow the happenings and post comments on Charcutepalooza's Facebook page and the related blogs or post photos on Flickr, where the 'loozers already have amassed a gallery of cured duck breasts from the first challenge and creations that use the featured ingredient.
"Omigod, have you seen the duck-breast prosciutto banh mi recipe on the Butcher's Apprentice?" Foster asked on a recent rare day when the two were able to take a "meating" - their tongue-in-cheek terminology - and kibbitz in Barrow's kitchen.
"And the meatballs from Last Night's Dinner," Barrow added, where Providence, R.I., blogger Jennifer Hess comes close to breaking some kind of food-porn record in recapping her duck, duck goose. She rolls a mixture of minced duck confit, savory, shallot, egg and bread crumbs into cocktail-size balls; stuffs each with a nugget of foie gras; browns them in duck fat; glazes them with fig jam, white balsamic vinegar and mustard seeds; wraps them in pieces of her Charcutepalooza cured duck breast; broils them and inserts toothpicks.
Between Barrow's easy, husky chuckling and Foster's comic way with a story, it's a wonder they could stay on point. After a photographer left, the pair discovered they had left the peas out of the pasta dish made to showcase freshly cured pancetta. More to laugh about.
"The cool thing has been seeing all the great ways people are using the charcuterie," Barrow said. A collection of best recipes may fall into place when the 12 months are up.
The project's forums are not all show-and-tell. For February, the apprentice-level challenge is bacon, while more adventurous types can cure pork belly to make pancetta. Twitter followers who search on "#charcutepalooza" got to discuss the merits of pink salt and nitrates while Bob del Grosso, micropaleontologist, chef and former instructor at the Culinary Institute of America, held an hour-long advisory session. He offered to help once he had found out about Charcutepalooza.
"People in Italy have told us they don't use nitrates. People in France say they don't use cheesecloth. We're getting all perspectives," Barrow said. "Every time I check my e-mail, there are 50 to 75 of them about all this."
Frankly, the meat talk has worried a few blog followers of Foster and Barrow, who hope it will not overtake Foster's humorous insights about cooking with kids in tow and Barrow's canning, cookie- and pie-making exploits. Barrow has initiated Meatless Monday recipes in response, which helps balance her daily cooking; her husband, Dennis, is mostly vegetarian and Barrow prefers eating meat "in moderation."
In a way, Barrow's various careers and education all play a part in the satisfying role she has today, monitoring the project: a degree from Carnegie Mellon in organizational behavior; housewares buyer for a department store; owner of a fish market; a marketing consultant; garden coach and landscape designer.
She grew up in Pittsburgh and has cooked since "forever." She has lived in the District since 1985. Her participation in Food52.com's weekly recipe contests, started in August 2009, quickly upped her status as someone to watch. (Three of Barrow's cookie recipes were featured in the Food section's Dec. 8 all-cookie issue.) A month later, she took two days of charcuterie classes from chef Bonnie Moore at L'Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda, and that ignited her interest in charcuterie and augmented her preservation skills.
After the story about Barrow aired on NPR, she was contacted by Wendy Melvin, a farmer's wife in Pulaski, Tenn. They traded e-mails and phone calls, then Barrow got an offer. Melvin and her family were coming to see the sights in Washington; could she bring Cathy a bushel of pears and, say, 40 pounds of pork bellies from their Berkshire hogs?
"She is every bit as lovely in person as I could have hoped for," Melvin said in a phone interview. "She makes food fun and accessible and, to me, you read her blog and you want to cook."
Barrow canned the pears and froze the bellies.
She sent the last 10 pounds of raw bellies home with Foster, and the rest of whatever Barrow hasn't given away has been cured or smoked in some fashion and stored in her basement freezer, along with Stonyman Farm lamb, duck carcasses and cornmeal. Jars of whole fruit, pie filling, salsa, sauces, soups, sauerkraut, apple butter, tomatoes, pickles, relishes, chicken stock and grape juice fill the shelves nearby.
Under the stairs, two slender rolls of pancetta spiraled with juniper berries and black pepper hang in a compact wine cooler Barrow found through Craigslist. She was having trouble maintaining the proper humidity, then del Grosso suggested that she wick in heavily salted water through a clean cotton towel. That did it.
They will take their rightful place alongside hundreds of others from around the world, perhaps in the Flickr hall of fame. And then the next piece of meat will join the Charcutepalooza.