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André Mack: "I Get Mail from People in Jail About Ham"

26 May, 2022
Andre Mack

Photo: Liz Clayman

“Around 2005, I was in Ohio talking with a friend opening a restaurant and we were speaking with a pig farmer. This pig farmer was saying that his number one market was Italy,” Mack says, still sounding surprised from an exchange that took place almost two decades ago.

“He was selling hogs to Italy because they couldn’t keep up with the world’s demand. I thought, they can use our American hogs for prosciutto? And yes, of course it’s a twofold process [to make prosciutto] – how the hog is raised and how the ham is made.” But a lightbulb went off, as well as an acknowledgement of how, in America, we’re humble about our ham.

“Country ham is America’s prosciutto and it’s traditionally cut thicker and then fried. And the fact that it’s so salty means when you serve it with red-eye gravy, the coffee in the gravy takes away some of that saltiness. It’s very intense. And it has never been shown the white glove treatment that ham from Europe was. The first time I saw David Chang slicing country ham thin blew my mind. Why aren’t we treating our ham the same way? To the naked eye you don’t know where the ham is from. It’s indistinguishable.”

These notions combined set Mack off on a mission that is being seen through with Ham Bar today. “I wanted to be a steward and shine light on American food heritage to craftsmanship, from American ham to American cheese. And American wine [with a legacy] that goes back to the sixties.”

And Sons interior

Interior of Ham Bar 

This celebration of America’s food heritage extends even to the slicers that the hams are rendered into those ethereal pink ribbons. Mack purchased a slicer on Craigslist from someone whose family once ran a butcher and deli in Long Island and was shocked when he picked it up, “It said Berkel 1910 on it and I realised it was an American version of the slicer. This prestigious European cured meat slicer company was making slicers in America [a century ago]. That was the tipping point for me to say okay, I need to open this bar and shed light on all these things.”

Ham Slicer

Ham slicer

“We aren’t reinventing the wheel. The idea of serving meat, cheese and wine together is done over and over and over. What’s unique to us is where we source our ingredients from and our ability to tell the history about how they were made. Anyone who grew up on a farm is familiar with curing meats, which is fascinating to me.”

What sets Mack’s Ham Bar apart is that he’s showing American ham the same respect as Spanish and Italian charcuterie.

So, about those ingredients. Here are Mack's current favourites:

Lady Edison from North Carolina

The &Son’s Ham Bar menu says: “Dry cured, but not smoked, which highlights its awesome funkiness.” Mack says: “These pigs are all fed acorns. When we talk to people about styles of ham for reference, Lady Edison is close to jamón. The nuttiness of the pigs’ diet comes through.”

Newsom’s from Kentucky

“This one is really complex. It’s aged 25 months. This is really my staple and it’s in my top two or three hams.”

Dakota from Kentucky

The menu says: “Robust unsmoked salty umami thing of beauty.” Mack says: “The one we have on the menu right now is aged 42 months. It’s not about the packaging. The age in months just refers to when they pull the ham from the cure because someone, us in this instance, purchased it. It would continue to cure had it not been bought as Dwight doesn’t have an end goal in his ageing process. And it’s sad in a way, 42 months is close to four years and the price we charge for ham [that is gone in a few bites] is not even close to what it should be.” The Dakota is also the most popular ham at the Ham Bar, “probably because it’s the employees’ favourite and they really want people to experience it.”

Casella’s from New York

Cesare Casella’s ham is another favorite. He’s Italian and working in upstate New York making his interpretation of prosciutto. It’s saline with a clean pork flavour.”

Incontro from Nebraska

“They’re importing mangalitsa pigs from Hungary and this ham is aged for three months. It’s one of our older hams on the menu.”

Mack’s storytelling via ham has touched a vast number of people, even those who are unable to make it into Ham Bar in person. A profile in the New Yorker on Mack, published in June 2020, unleashed a flood of calls and messages from ham lovers who admired what he was doing with the Ham Bar. “Three people from jail wrote me letters,” says Mack. “Yes, I get mail from people in jail about how much they love ham. One guy told me it reminded him of when he was sixteen and slicing ham by hand in a deli.”

The New Yorker article also prompted repeated calls from a woman who would ask one of his employees at the Ham Bar to speak to Mack, then hang up if he was not available. She called twenty-five times. It turns out that woman’s husband had just passed. He was a great lover of country ham, saved clippings of articles on Mack and bequeathed two legs of Newsom’s ham to him.

“She starts to cry and then now I’m crying, and my employees are trying to figure out what’s happening.”

Mack has yet to touch those inherited Newsom’s hams. “We need to honour them in some way. I want to do something special to commemorate them.”

And yet, Mack is honouring every ham that comes through his doors, celebrating and commemorating the efforts of each American ham producer. As for the seven different locations he’s paying rent on? Look out for more concepts from Mack that celebrate American producers through the same careful, intentional lenses, including Kingfisher, which will be seafood-focused, and Chickadee Bread, which will spotlight whole heirloom grains and long fermentation sourdough breads.

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