By Michael Nagrant, @MichaelNagrant
November 4, 2013
Chicago is a sausage fest—but it wasn't always that way. Ten years ago, you'd be hard-pressed to find platters of encased meats, rustic pates and cured meats outside of the old-school German restaurants. But in 2005, Michael Ruhlman and chef Brian Polcyn released "Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing." Young chefs caught the charcuterie bug and today, almost any gastropub worth its pork has a butcher's board.
Though they are now prevalent, most of these meat platters are formulaic: a trio of meats, some circles of sausage, a few slices of grilled sourdough, and maybe a mustard, a pickle or some jam. Often only one of the meats or pickles, or none, is made in house.
And then there's the boucherie board ($22) at southern-focused Big Jones (5347 N. Clark St. 773-275-5725) in Andersonville. It's a smorgasbord of house-made pickles, jams, mustards, mayo, cured meats, fresh-baked breads and crackers. The detail and abundance on this plate is emblematic of the fastidious nature of its chef, Paul Fehribach. Though pimento cheese and fried chicken are all over now, when Fehribach opened Big Jones in 2008, some of his biggest competition for southern cooking was Popeyes and Wishbone. Unlike some of the trend-hopping newcomers, Fehribach's cooking wasn't just a facsimile or homogenized idea of what southern food was. It was of a specific time and place, rooted in Fehribach's devotion to his study of legendary southern cooks such as Edna Lewis, John Folse and Paul Prudhomme (Commander's Palace, K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen). Fehribach's etouffee wasn't heavy brown gravy and rice; it was golden, full of butter and perfumed with wine, a nod to the kind they made in Breaux Bridge, La., in the 1940s. Often after you ate a dish like this at Big Jones, you could read about how Fehribach discovered and crafted the plate on his blog at bigjoneschicago.com.
Fehribach's boucherie board is just as detailed and well-crafted as that etouffee. He butchers whole hogs from Indiana's Gunthorp Farms. He renders down a whole hog's head, mixes the meat from the cheeks and the snout with a heavy dose of red wine vinegar and a Chinese five-spice-like mixture heavy on nutmeg, star anise and chunky whole peppercorns. The resulting fromage de tete de cochon pate is silky and pungent, sharp and spicy like no other in town.
Fehribach also takes more of that Gunthorp pork, heavily spices it with paprika and garlic, stuffs it into beef casings and smokes it over pecan wood for 4 to 5 hours until he has one of the best links of andouille sausage outside of the Louisiana bayou. Fehribach said he sampled a lot of andouille and was inspired by the one he had at Jacob's in LaPlace, La. He also smokes his tasso ham over pecan as well and rubs it with spice and honey. The tender pink knobs rimmed with a smoky brown ring waft a touch of cumin. In the fall, Fehribach also pots guinea hen for the platter. The fowl is boned and cooked, and the bones are made into a rich stock used to baste the cooked meat until it breaks down into tender strands. This mix is stuffed into pots and capped with duck fat to make a velvety spread.
The meats are accompanied by thick swooshes of homemade aioli, pureed deviled egg, and sweet dollops of house-made quince or huckleberry jam. In the spring, there are pickles made with ramps and fiddlehead ferns, and in the late summer and fall, pickled watermelon rind, wax beans and pearl onion. There is always a sweet and tangy chow chow (a pickled vegetable relish often made with cabbage, onion and carrot) and vinegar-spiked okra. There's a bourbon-brown sugar mustard on the board, too.
To carry all the meats and spreads, you'll find house-baked rye slices, freshly baked crackers (based on a recipe of the legendary southern cook Edna Lewis) crusted with benne (an African seed found in the south that's an antecedent to sesame seeds), and springy Sally Lunn white bread.
The last time I had the board, there were 16 different elements on it and every single one of them was made in-house. I can't get enough of this kind of detail and craft, but yet I can't help but think Fehribach is a little crazy to do all that work. Surely he could get away with buying a pickle or preserve to make a little more profit? "Sometimes my ambition is greater than it should be," he said. "But, I always tell people if I were in this for the money, I would have gone into investment baking and stolen it." He added, "We've been profoundly disserved by the crumbling of American food culture. If or when my work is done, whether it's next year or 20 years from now, what I hope I've done is preserve, protect and cultivate [that culture]."
Michael Nagrant is a RedEye special contributor. Reporters visit restaurants unannounced and meals are paid for by RedEye. email@example.com | @redeyeeatdrink
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