When Herb Eckhouse decided to locate his acclaimed cured ham house, La Quercia, in Norwalk, Iowa, he didn’t mean it as a statement. He wanted to make a positive impact in the place he’d long ago decided to raise his family. “We wanted to do something for Iowa. Something we can be proud of from this amazing bounty.”
But if you know anything about the current state of hog farming it’s hard to think of Herb’s work without considering the statement it’s making. He carefully selects his hogs from folks who practice old-fashioned, industry-rattling farming practices. No sub-theraputic antibiotics. No hormones. Access to the out-of-doors. A breed palate that moves away from the low-fat, fast-growing, disease-prone standard white bread pig. Mixed grain feed that doesn’t rely on Iowa’s most contentious crop, genetically modified corn.
Herb certainly isn’t the first ham curer to be working with this kind of humanely raised pork. But, in my view, he’s the first to be working at this kind of scale, at least in America. Since U.S. law prohibits us from importing most cured meats—Prosciutto di Parma being a notable exception—American hog raising practices have a huge effect on the kind of cured meats we eat. There are a growing number of small charcuterie houses who make great salami and other cured meats from pork raised humanely. But salami cures in a matter of weeks. It takes almost a year to cure a ham. With that much meat literally tied up, it’s difficult to make the business math work unless you work at a large scale.
Herb’s main aging room has thirty thousand hams. Add in another few thousand in the other rooms—charmingly named “winter” and “spring” since they replicate the weather a ham would encounter if it was aged at ambient temperatures in sync with the seasons. There’s tons more pork aging in the form of loins, bacon, jowls and so on. The scale is something that he’s even surprised at. “It always freaks me out. I used to make them in my basement. I started out with six hams.”
Add it up and it’s easy to see what it means to Iowa pig farming. He’s helped to create a national market for cured ham made from humanely raised pigs. His hams are on the menus of great restaurants and hanging above great deli counters across the country. Iowa farmers now have a willing buyer when they raise a pig in a way that takes extra work and extra expense. Thousands of pigs now enjoy a completely different life thanks to the standards Herb keeps. And Iowa is increasingly finding itself in the vanguard of old-fashioned, full-flavored hog farming.