Welcome back to Obsessed, the interview series in which we talk to uniquely driven amateurs and professionals from all across the food world. We hope to shed light on the passions that inspire enthusiastic food nerds, from home cooks to chefs on the line to veteran butchers, fishmongers, and farmers. Hopefully we'll also pick up some of their favorite tips, tricks, and food wisdom along the way. Know somebody who you think would be perfect for this interview series? Email us!
I caught the charcuterie bug back in 2006, right after Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn's Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing was published to almost universal acclaim. While I fantasized about one day building out my own curing chamber and making my own saucisson sec, I went about making the easier recipes in the book, like pancetta and guanciale, neither of which promised to be especially poisonous if something went awry. What started as a hobby gradually became a bit of an obsession. At its peak, I devoted half of the meager closet space in my small Brooklyn apartment to hanging pounds of pork belly and jowl.
While that may seem remarkable to some, I was far from alone. After my light fixation had subsided, I continued to indulge my fantasy vicariously, frequently using my lunch breaks to visit the odd corners of the internet where men and women wax ecstatic about cured meats, so I can say with some authority that a lot has changed over the years. There are far more resources available today than there were back then, and there are far more people out there practicing the craft, with large communities across the web dedicated to the pursuit of curing a stunning variety of charcuterie.
And yet, when I stumbled upon Bob Von Scio, I realized there was something different going on. It wasn't just that he was making stuff I was unfamiliar with, or that he had seemingly successfully tackled prosciutto—something that I'd always thought should be left to the Italians and the Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstalls of the world. It was that he was very clearly making charcuterie from animals he had raised himself. In several ways, he appears to be living the pastoral dream that many amateur charcutiers have in the back of their minds, and so I reached out to him to ask about it all. And what I found, somewhat to my surprise, was not only a dedicated enthusiast but an impassioned advocate for a distinctly Appalachian terroir.
Name: Bob Von Scio
Day job: Homesteader
Can you talk a little bit about your farm? I know you raise a variety of animals—chickens, ducks, rabbits—can you describe the extent of your operations? Is it a family-run affair? When did you start working the farm?
Our farm is only about 15 acres in rural Pennsylvania [about 40 miles south of Pittsburgh], and we started doing farm stuff in 2013. The property was my grandparents' homestead, and when my grandmother passed away, I took over. We actually started raising chickens and getting the forest pasture set up for the pigs before we even built our house (it was completed in 2014). Prior to this change of location, we lived in the suburbs, where we did some vegetable gardening, canning, and a lot of "from-scratch" cooking.
Even though the property is relatively small, we have a great variety of resources and favorable topography to work with. There's a creek that runs through the property, and it flows 365 days a year. That's obviously great for waterfowl, but even our chickens will congregate under the taller vegetation on the banks of the creek when the summer is at its hottest. About 10 acres of our property is forested hillside. The trees that grow there are oak, beech, hickory, maple, tulip poplar, and some ash, musclewood, and various understory trees and shrubs. The soil is fertile, albeit rocky, and the mix of trees is fantastic for pigs to forage under. Down near the house and barn, we have a few acres of pasture (okay, it's a big yard...but when animals live on it, it's pasture) that is as flat as any plain you can imagine. The guy who built our house said he's never seen a lot so flat in his life. There's only, like, six inches of drop over 200 yards, from the house to where the hillside starts. This area has deep, fertile topsoil (it's a floodplain, but we haven't had flooding problems for a couple hundred years, since all the beavers were trapped). So we use it for the birds, rabbits, grapevines, berry bushes, fruit trees, and gardens.
Our farm is family-run, but it's not "run" like a farm. We just live here, and producing our own food is just what we do. We are homesteaders first. It just so happens that, aside from cutting firewood, the bulk of homesteading is devoted to food production. Our kids are pretty young (eight and three), so they don't do much heavy lifting...but you'd be surprised at how little actual work goes into keeping yourself warm and fed. Yes, there are times where I wring every last drop of energy out of myself to complete a project (fencing, cutting wood, digging holes for whatever reason—all hard work), but I doubt I've put in more than two or three 40-hour weeks of farm work in the three years we've been doing this. When you work with your environment and set up complementary systems, you are more of a caretaker than you are a...whatever word would mean "someone pushing the machine forward day to day."
We really hit the ground running with the farm, so there wasn't a long expansion process. I think we have a pretty good handle on what we need to produce in order to feed ourselves, so that's what we shoot for: three pigs, 120 to 150 chickens, 10 turkeys, 30 to 50 ducks, and a whitetail deer are sufficient for us to essentially purchase no meat, except for when we dine out or want to have a ribeye at home. We end up raising five or six pigs a year, though, because my brother-in-law takes one and a friend of mine from college takes one as well. Two or three of the turkeys are reserved for family members, too.
We usually start gearing up for the livestock in March and April. We'll hatch out some chicks from our laying flock and order meat birds around then. We normally break the meat chickens out into three to four batches to make it more manageable. All of our animals are legitimately free-range, pastured livestock. The ducks spend all summer going up and down our creek. The turkeys cover a good three acres of pasture in any given day. The chickens are easier to contain to the grassy area, just surrounding their shed and along the edge of the forest, that makes up the bulk of our property.
The pigs are our "keystone" project. When people ask, we say we have a pig farm. This despite only having three to six pigs at any given time (and often zero from December to April). The pig is just so versatile in its culinary applications that you can get so much more value out of one of them than a dozen or so chickens. Plus, our property and our location are, I believe, pretty ideally suited to raising pigs and turning them into amazing charcuterie.
Why did you start doing charcuterie? Was it purely out of necessity, or was there something compelling about it beyond preservation?
As I said, we are homesteaders first. In that respect, preservation of food was a primary concern. I always wanted to turn out premium cured products, but the fact is that it's a logical, practical way of preserving food. If you are going to go through the trouble of raising pigs, of course you're going to make hams; of course you're going to make bacon; of course you're going to make sausage. And if you are going to make a ham, why not make a prosciutto? If you're going to make bacon, why not coppa? If you're going to make sausage, why not salami? As you branch out into these different disciplines of curing meats, you start encountering all the variations within that category. There are tons of whole-muscle cures, from prosciutto to coppa to lomo to guanciale. When you get into dry-cured sausages, you have almost infinite variations on salami, from soppressata to cacciatorini. You have your dry-cured products, smoked products, and fermented products.
Almost every culture has a history of curing meats. Native Americans have pimîhkân, or pemmican. South Africa has biltong. There's the charcuterie of France and Spain, the salumi of Italy, the smoked sausages of Eastern Europe, and a really eclectic blend of recipes from Southeast Asia, like sai oua sausage in Thailand. Cuisine is a conduit for culture, and the more extensive my repertoire in cured meats gets, the more I understand the unique needs and challenges different cultures faced in extending their food supplies. Charcuterie not only preserves meat, but it concentrates flavor, develops new flavor, and transforms flesh into an incredible range of sensory experiences. So, whenever I'm making something, I'm connecting with the history of the people who developed and popularized that product. Even though it isn't necessarily my history, I'm keeping the tradition alive and making it my history.
Beyond that, I believe that my region—Appalachia—is an untapped reservoir of world-class cuisine. The food history of this region, which stretches from Mississippi to New York, is reminiscent of many more famous food cultures around the world. A hundred years ago, farmers from Georgia to Pennsylvania would manage unfenced herds of swine, cattle, and sheep. They'd use ear notches and brands to distinguish their stock from that of their neighbors. Rather than fencing the pigs and cows in, they'd put sturdy fencing around their gardens, to keep the free-ranging livestock from eating their vegetables. That method of raising pigs is employed in the famed dehesas of Iberia, where black-footed pigs are turned into extremely expensive jamón. All up and down the Appalachian range, there are heirloom vegetables and heritage-breed animals particularly suited to their environment. It's as rich and varied (and high-quality) as any haute cuisine from the Mediterranean. But, for reasons completely unrelated to the food itself, hillbilly food doesn't show up on the menus of The French Laundry, Le Bernardin, or any of the places featured on Chef's Table.
I'd like to promote the idea that these backward, forgotten areas, if you peel back the generations of socioeconomic retardation, have as rich a food culture as Provence. If being from Appalachia weren't positioned as a handicap, or something that needs to be overcome—if you get beyond the incest jokes, the references to meth and Trump—if you can pare away all the cruft built up around the idea of Appalachia, and just expose the food as it existed before the Walmarts and the Twinkies and the aerosol cheese; get back to the acorn-finished pigs smoked on hickory and oak, the corn patch grown for polenta versus the corn patch grown for moonshine, the wild game, the mutton, the fish.... Alice Waters talks about a meal that planted the seed of the slow [food] movement in her brain, which consisted of ham and line-caught trout. Of course, that meal was eaten in France, but every April thousands of trout are pulled out of Ten Mile "Crick," and none of them, to my knowledge, have prompted a movement.
"Coal mines and steel mills aren't coming back, but we have the resources and a foundation to erect a newer, better culture."
So, why charcuterie? Because it's real goddamn good, and I think, in the long term, it's important to this region's identity. Coal mines and steel mills aren't coming back, but we have the resources and a foundation to erect a newer, better culture.
What was your first exposure to charcuterie?
You know, I don't actually know. It wasn't like I went on vacation to Parma and had some ham and a lightbulb went off. It was a slow evolution that coincided with our cooking skills increasing over time. You always kind of intrinsically know that cured meats exist, but you might not really have it click that these things aren't just "lunch meat" from the grocery store deli. I'm sure some of the pieces came together during a visit to one of the more legitimate deli counters in the city (Penn Mac or Parma Sausage in Pittsburgh), [with] Anthony Bourdain in the background. But there wasn't a seminal moment. I do recall an episode of No Reservations where Tony was in Spain and was eating ibérico in the back room of this little restaurant, and he took each paper-thin slice and basically rubbed it all over his lips before eating it. I remember thinking, "That stuff must be pretty good if he's making himself look like a fool like that." Flash-forward to me cutting into my first 18-month-old prosciutto and then skipping through the house yelling, "HOLY SH!T IT'S GOOD! IT'S NOT TERRIBLE! IT'S REALLY F@&$ING GOOD!"
When did you decide to start devoting a significant amount of time to exploring making charcuterie?
As we were getting ready to build our house down on the farm and start homesteading, I started buying big cuts of pork from a local packing house to try out some recipes: bacon, coppa, breakfast sausage, salami. They turned out recognizable (the bacon has always turned out pretty good; hard to go wrong there), which was enough for me to catch the bug. I read Peter Kaminsky's book Pig Perfect and realized that I could raise pigs in my forest, and, with any luck, they might turn out half decent as food products. So it was in the fall of 2013 that I said, "This is going to be my life." I decided to raise animals as naturally and ethically as possible, and then turn them into really good food. I decided to keep refining my craft and extending my range and to continually try to produce my own ingredients, so that my products are distinctly my own. I decided to make sure that the terroir of the meat matches the terroir of the herbs and spices as much as possible. I think this place where I live is incredibly beautiful, and I want to embody that beauty with the work and care that goes into making this stuff.
Do you think raising your own animals and making charcuterie at home has made you a better or more curious cook generally?
Absolutely. You get a few reliable arrows in your quiver, and then it's a constant quest to find more esoteric recipes and processes. I just got a new cookbook that is all Spanish recipes, which means I have to plant specific chile peppers in the garden this spring. It's like getting into cheese and then not being satisfied unless you find a cheese that makes at least one person at the table throw up in their purse. Charcuterie is cooking, in a way, but it's also chemistry, biology, animal husbandry, history, and art. It's hard not to just automatically apply these skills to other cooking projects—even simple things, like using salt to pull moisture out of meat that you intend to sear on a grill, or brining a chicken, or trussing up a roast. And the fact that we raise, slaughter, and butcher the animals that we eat gives us a lot of insight into the qualities and characteristics we can play up in a dish. We raised 30 Jersey Giant chickens among our broilers last year. They grow slowly and are very "wild" birds. They are more clever and skittish than the standard meat birds. I don't feed our poultry very much as it is (they get most of their nutrition from the bugs and vegetation they browse on), but these guys had very little interest at all in the supplemental feed I gave them. As a result, they produced chartreuse carcasses. They looked like they were marinated in turmeric. They concentrated so many carotenoids in their skin, fat, and joint tissues that they looked like they could glow in the dark. Knowing that, we used them extensively for making stock and in dishes where they could impart that color to other ingredients (like rice, for example). Knowing your food that intimately, inside and out, while maybe a bit morbid, is certainly a benefit when it comes to expressing its full potential in a dish.
Do you make money off the farm? Do you sell any products? If not, do you plan to?
Kinda, sorta. Last year, I took on one customer as sort of a CSA arrangement after she badgered me nonstop to sell her stuff we produced. Each year, we get more efficient with the animals, and our gardens become more productive as we amend the soil and find new niches where different plants grow better. As a result, it is becoming a much more attractive idea to take on a few CSA subscribers or buy a stall at the farmers market. In addition, my friend from college (for whom we raised a pig this past year) has gone off the deep end into charcuterie, just as I did. When he asked me to raise a pig for him, I got him what I consider to be the four essential books to get started with—in fact, he's picking up half an Ossabaw pig in Washington, DC, this week and is bringing it back to my house to butcher it. He's a serial entrepreneur and wants to do some business, and I'm halfway on board. Just selling processed animals is a rough way to eke out a dollar, but once you start selling value-added products (charcuterie, pickled produce), the margins go way up. You can buy a nice dead pig for $4 a pound, but mid-range charcuterie starts at $20. And you can cure those guys from oink to tail. The difference is massive: $800 to $1,200 for fresh pork, versus $5,000 to $6,000 worth of cured product. So, do I plan to sell? Maybe.
What's your favorite type of charcuterie to eat?
So, I've developed this idea that prosciutto should not be considered the king of charcuterie; the coppa should. The reason is that the coppa (which is the two big "hump" muscles that are just behind the head) contributes more to the pigness of the pig than the hams do. The pigs' habit is to bulldoze the forest floor, and the coppa is the hydraulics that run the shovel (the face). The coppa is beautifully marbled, and when you cure it and dry it out, the fat stays snowy white and distinct, while the flesh is ruby-red. It's absolutely gorgeous (and it tastes pretty damn good, too). However, prosciutto is simply too good. It's funky, tangy, nutty, and just coats your mouth with protein, fat, salt, and enzymes. You slide a primo slice of prosciutto in your mouth, and it's intoxicating. Your shoulders slouch, you exhale, you suck that piece up against the roof of your mouth...you never want to swallow it. I'm trying to paint a picture here that isn't pornographic, but honestly, if anyone is reading this and hasn't had good prosciutto, just set aside $20 or $30, find some, and buy as much as that amount of money will afford you. Look, I'm a big fan of bourbon, Scotch, rum, tequila, and gin, but this isn't like that. You don't have to acquire a taste for prosciutto. If someone never had Scotch before, you wouldn't tell them to buy a bottle of Laphroaig Quarter Cask as their entry into the Scotch world. They would inevitably come back to you with "That tastes like gasoline and Band-Aids!", and they'd be right, but still. As prosciutto dries out, the salt and enzymes interact and amino acids (tyrosine) crystallize. You get these little flecks of gritty nuggets in the meat. It gives it a mouthfeel that is kind of like an old, crumbly cheddar or Parmesan. I've used the word before, but it's simply intoxicating.
What's your favorite type of charcuterie to make?
This is actually harder, because you don't just have "taste" as a qualifier. Prosciutto tastes amazing, but it's two ingredients: pig leg and salt. So, how do you qualify recipes that are "fun" to make? Or are challenging? Or have some part of the process that is interesting?
I'll cheat and pick three. First is mortadella. Mortadella is a very "sporting" product to make. You need good ingredients, good technique, and good attention to the process. There are pitfalls all along the way. It's an emulsified sausage, so you are binding a lot of water up with pork fat. You have to keep everything really cold and add the water in the right proportions and whip it all together just right, for just the right amount of time. It's a very delicate sausage, so you want delicate, clean meat, flavorful spices, and big chunks of milky-white fat. You get it all together, and the sausage needs to be gently poached so it firms up. When you do this, the filling expands. You have to let out any air bubbles that develop and heat it slowly enough that the casing doesn't blow out. The temperature of the farce can be too warm, and your emulsion can break. Maybe your herbs are stale, you got a blood clot in your pork shoulder, and your back fat is kind of yellow, so your finished product turns out blah. Or, you get everything perfect, and you slide it into your simmering water, and the whole thing just explodes and makes a pot of blended pork soup. On the other hand, let's say everything goes perfectly and you spend a few hours making a three-pound mortadella; the stars aligned, and the pig gods smiled on you and your kitchen. Are you left with prosciutto? Nope. What you got there is bologna. So much work and attention to detail, and the best compliment you can get is "Hey, that tastes just like bologna!"
Second: headcheese. So, I have this thing I say about processing chickens: "With every step, every handful of feathers you pluck, it looks less like 'a chicken' and more like 'chicken.'" This is the pork equivalent. You start with a whole pig head, a face. This is a face you've seen every day for months. This face had a name. You're going to clean that face up, cut it in half, scoop out the brain, and soak it in brine. Then, you're going to boil that head, that face, for hours. You're going to dig through the carnage and tear all the meat from the bone. The liquor you boiled it in gets reduced and concentrated so it will set up like Jell-O in the final product. You spice your face meat with fresh herbs, white wine, and citrus zest, and pot it into little loaves. And if you've done everything right, you are going to get this gem of a product—pink, red, green, yellow—like a stained-glass window of pork. Absolutely beautiful. Every step along the way made it look less like the pig you knew and more like a shiny bauble. And again, the highest praise you can expect is "Well, that isn't as terrible as I expected." It's an attractive product of constant refinement of the raw ingredients, and yet its reputation suffers because of an unfortunate name. Sure, you can call it souse, or brawn, or fromage de tête, but I prefer to go with straightforward "headcheese" and change hearts and minds with the taste.
The last one is a little different from the first two. It's salami. Here's the thing about salami: Everyone and their mother has had salami. It tastes like childhood. It's a ubiquitous deli meat. But how many people know how salami becomes salami? One bowl of ground pork tastes like breakfast sausage, while another bowl can become salami. It's this magical process where bacteria and fungus converge, one from within, the other from without, and turn sausage into salami. Ground pork is spiced fairly simply and inoculated with lactobacillus bacteria. Within the first couple of days, that bacteria ferments and adds lactic acid to the farce, effectively curing the meat. On the outside, the casing is inoculated with Penicillium nalgiovense mold, which grows aggressively, crowding out other, more harmful molds. At the same time, their mycelia open tiny pathways that help moisture from within the sausage to exit, helping to dry the sausage to the texture you'd expect from salami. It's a profound transformation that happens in a month or two, as opposed to a year and a half or more for prosciutto. That's kind of a running theme for my fascination with this subject. It's alchemy, but with food.
Is there a recipe you've come up with that you're particularly proud of? What about it is important to you?
"It's like pizza or sex. You get one little taste, and you're like, 'Oh yeah, I'm going to be into this until I die.'"
This is more of an extension of a recipe than a new creation, but tonno di maiale salad. Tonno di maiale (tuna pork) is fairly simple. It's flash-cured pork, simmered in white wine and bay leaf and packed in olive oil. It basically turns tough, gnarly shank meat into something with the texture of canned tuna. Normally, that's as far as it goes, and it's fine for what it is. We just white-trashed it up a bit by tossing it with mayo, onion, and celery, to continue the tuna metaphor. What started as a way to use up some janky forearm meat turned into a product we look forward to making and eating every year. This is actually a product I could see producing and selling. It has a fancy-pants name, it tastes great, it's shelf-stable, it's dead simple to make, and it's about as cheap as you can get in terms of ingredients. Plus, it's immediately and obviously delicious. There's no learning curve or acquired taste about it. It's like pizza or sex. You get one little taste, and you're like, "Oh yeah, I'm going to be into this until I die."
Do you have kitchen tools that you can't live without?
I'm fairly low-maintenance in the kitchen. I don't have super-expensive knives or a ton of electronic gizmos. A honing steel and sharpening stone are really helpful to have around. The general rule of thumb for cutting cured meats is "paper-thin," which you can't really do with a dull knife. I always try to make sure I have a ball of butcher twine handy, and some S hooks, so if I make a batch of salami or something that needs to be hung, I don't have to rig up a way to suspend it in the curing chamber. I guess I'm answering this based on the topic, but charcuterie is an old, peasant craft practiced by people who may have had a pot to piss in, but they had to cook in it afterward. I may end up getting a sous vide immersion circulator for poaching emulsified sausages at some point, but right now, I'd say the most indispensable tools are my meat grinder and sausage stuffer. I still grind meat with my KitchenAid stand mixer meat grinder attachment. It's tedious, since I'm working with hundreds of pounds of pork at this point. I will probably be getting a stand-alone meat grinder this summer. My sausage stuffer is an LEM canister-style stuffer. It's small (five pounds), but it works so quickly that I'd prefer to just load it twice for a 10-pound batch than deal with one that is twice the capacity. Outside of charcuterie, though, I use my electric kettle, French press, and All-Clad cookware every day, multiple times per day.
Do you have a recipe/idea in the works? Anything that's particularly challenging or thorny about it?
I have this dish I make every summer when I have company down at the farm. It's duck hearts that are lightly brined, threaded onto rosemary skewers, and then grilled over high heat. In addition to that, I make crispy fried duck tongues. To make those, you pack your tongues in a bag of duck broth and sous-vide them for a couple of hours to soften them up. There is a sharp bone that runs down the length of the tongue, and things need to be broken down a bit to slide that out. Once you debone the tongues, you throw them in the dehydrator for a while to get them nice and rubbery. Then you deep-fry them. They puff up a bit and get nice and crispy. They are sort of like fried clams, but there's this little reservoir of duck fat in the middle. It's like an umami-flavored Gusher (do they still make those candies?). So, this is only something I can make once a year, because every duck only has one tongue, and even 30 to 40 tongues is only like a large McDonald's French fry order. Anyway, it has this whole "steak frites" vibe to it. The hearts taste like sirloin chunks, and the tongues are like French fries. What I want to do is harvest a number of duck brains, intact, make a mild gelatin from the duck feet, cure the brains, and then enclose them in the duck gelatin. Like a meaty, gelatinous ice cube with a salty, fatty core. It may sound horrendous, but think about headcheese. It's very similar in texture and (I assume) flavor. And headcheese is beautiful. Six whole parsley leaves on each face of the cube, a few spirals of lemon zest, some finely diced fire-engine-red chile peppers...these could be pretty little things. Anyway, they'd be part of the rest of the dish, and collectively it would be called "Hearts and Minds."
Any tips for the aspiring home charcuterie-maker? For those interested in animal husbandry? Ideas about where to start?
For the home charcuterie-maker, I have a few pieces of advice from my own experience. First, start with stuff that doesn't have to be aged. Things like bacon, fresh sausage, smoked sausages, et cetera. Smoking is easy, and you don't need a fancy smoker. You can use a grill, an oven, or even just a box of some sort. Second, if you want to keep going with it after making those items, build a curing chamber. It is extremely easy and fairly cheap. Get an old, working refrigerator from Craigslist or a garage sale. Get your temperature and humidity controllers (the latter is a hygrostat) on Amazon. I use INKBIRD-brand controllers because they are simple to set up and there's no wiring involved. Then you get a small dehumidifier and a small desktop space heater. You'll have to drill a couple holes through the side of your fridge, but in 15 minutes or so, you'll have an environment that will keep itself at around 55°F (13°C) and 75% humidity. In that box, you can dry-age anything from pepperoni to prosciutto. Unless you live somewhere with an ideal climate for curing, most of your shortfalls are going to come from poor conditions during the aging process.
Finally, use the equilibrium curing method. That's a way of measuring your salt based on the weight of the meat you are using. It allows you to use different quantities of meat from what your recipes are designed for. Most recipes are for five-pound batches, but if you find yourself with a three-pound section of pork belly, or seven and a quarter pounds of coppa, it's a lot more precise and accurate to use, for example, 2.5% of the weight of the meat in kosher salt and 0.25% of your curing salts. Plus, by using a fixed ratio, there is a maximum level of saltiness your meat will achieve. So, if you are supposed to take something out of the cure after eight days, but you can't get to it until day 11, equilibrium curing prevents oversalting and ensures that each project hits a predictable level of saltiness.
As far as animal husbandry and whatnot, I guess I'd tell people to just get started with whatever scale your current situation allows for. If you live in a subdivision with a quarter-acre lot and you want to raise your own food, don't just fantasize about moving out into the mountains "some day," where you can have a flock of chickens and a few goats. Do what you can today where you are now. Chickens, ducks, and rabbits are entirely viable in traditional suburban settings. A vegetable garden is a no-brainer. Herbs can be grown on a windowsill in an apartment downtown. There are low-wattage LED grow lights that won't send your electric bill through the roof. Being able to feed yourself through your own production is incredibly liberating. It's something human beings have done for millennia. What other activity does the average person engage in multiple times per day, every day of their life? It's important, it's vital to your survival, and it's integral to your health. It's intimate, personal, and the choices you employ in executing this action define you in myriad ways. Your heritage, your culture, your biology (allergies, lactose intolerance, et cetera), your ethics (vegetarian/vegan), your values (organic, free-range, et cetera), your preferences, your aesthetics (neatly plated, stacked, bowl of slop). Take control of this aspect of your life. Understand where your food comes from and what it takes to produce a meal.
Any resources in particular you'd like to highlight (online purveyors or cookbooks or blogs)?
I suppose I should just name the four cookbooks I recommend to everyone when they ask about what to read when getting started. The first is Pig Perfect, which I've already mentioned. It isn't really a cookbook per se.
The second book is sort of the default charcuterie primer that almost everyone ends up with at some point. It's Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn. It's a good collection of basic cured-meat products. Older versions of the book were kind of high in salt on a few recipes, but I've heard that later, revised versions dialed the salt back a bit. If anything, that's a good argument in favor of the equilibrium curing method.
The next recommendation is In the Charcuterie, by Taylor Boetticher and Toponia Miller. This one is full of slightly more complex, esoteric charcuterie recipes, and it's more focused on meals that incorporate those products. It also has some handy butchering guides for everything from chickens to goats.
Finally, for a more hippy-dippy, back-to-nature sort of book, Dry-Curing Pork by Hector Kent is a good read for whole-muscle cures.
Those four books will give you a pretty good foundation to work from. You could probably make recipes from them for the rest of your life, and everyone would be super impressed. However, I'd like to throw in an honorable mention here (mostly because I haven't finished reading it yet and I haven't made anything in it) for Charcutería: The Soul of Spain by Jeffrey Weiss. I recommend it for a couple of reasons. It has a lot of recipes that most people would find to be esoteric; there's no "salame" recipe, but there are several salami from different parts of Spain. It's really a book about charcuterie culture—the traditions of swine-herding, the traditions of the slaughter and processing of pigs—and it's written in a casual voice laced with machismo and profanity. It's also really specific. Most books will say, "Use four pounds of pork shoulder and one pound of back fat," but this one is like, "30% jowl, 30% belly, 60% coppa and shoulder."
Online, you'll find a number of great resources for charcuterie. On Reddit, /r/charcuterie is a small sub, but it has a fairly engaged community. Just don't go posting pics of lunch meat on a cutting board. Recipes, questions, progress updates on long cures—that's what that sub is for. On Facebook, there are two groups I follow—The Salt Cured Pig and The Handcrafted Larder—but I don't post often. Some of the stuff that gets posted there is knock-your-socks-off amazing. There are some real meat gods among men in those groups. And finally, if you are simply Googling around for ideas, be selective and discerning about blogs or websites you find. There's some real garbage information out there. The Hungry Dog Blog seems pretty on point, and anything by Hank Shaw is worthwhile. Hank's specialty is wild game. I have one of his cookbooks, Duck, Duck, Goose, and I've made recipes of his that I found online for goose prosciutto and pastrami. He's a rock star in the wild-game world.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.