Raskin Around: Chesnut ham, chillie bears

Craig Deihl used only salt and pepper to cure the 40 pounds of meat he butchered from the chestnut-fed razorback. The hams weighed about six pounds apiece; everything else was allotted for salami, mixed at a ratio of 60 percent meat to 40 percent fat.

When Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills and David Shields of the University of South Carolina started scheming about how to reforest the Southeast with American chestnut trees, their interest wasn’t limited to bowlfuls of roasted nuts at Christmastime. They envisioned resurrecting a wide spectrum of chestnut-based cuisine, including chestnut grits, chestnuts souffles and chestnut-fed meats.

The culinary revivalists weren’t certain if a hog who spent his life feasting on chestnuts would taste better than a hog whose diet was chestnut-free. But an October 2013 barbecue — featuring a feral razorback that Roberts covertly caged into 150 acres surrounding an untended grove of hybrid trees in northern Florida — suggested chestnuts could produce rich, nutty pork. Charcuterie made from the other pig in the pen cinched it.

Craig Deihl, the Cypress and Artisan Meat Share chef who’s recognized as one of the nation’s top meat curers, last week unveiled salami and ham made from the chestnut-fed hog he received. “We’re getting pretty good at doing funky, different stuff,” Deihl says.

Because the pig was trapped in the wild, it’s not legal to sell the charcuterie. But Deihl plans to offer samples this weekend at the James Beard House in New York, where he’s participating in a “Craft of Charcuterie” event alongside chefs including Dallas’ John Tesar, Denver’s Justin Bruson and Boston’s Joshua Smith.

Rather than obscure the pork’s flavor with seasonings, Deihl used only salt and pepper to cure the 40 pounds of meat he butchered from the razorback. The hams weighed about six pounds apiece; everything else was allotted for salami, mixed at a ratio of 60 percent meat to 40 percent fat.

“It’s super fatty,” says Deihl, who didn’t want to stint on his first chestnut-fed pig. The thick bands of intramuscular fat slowed down the drying process, he adds: “I’d go by all the time and give it a squeeze. I wasn’t going to rush the quality of it, and I’m glad I didn’t.”

After 15 months, Deihl deemed the charcuterie ready for sharing.

While the salami has a waxy, rosy richness that conveys luxury as eloquently as history, it’s the greatness of the ham that will loom over every charcuterie board in my future. Sliced thinly, the ham has a well-oiled nuttiness that’s slightly reminiscent of macadamias.

“It really is special,” Deihl says of the exceptionally satiny charcuterie.

Or, as Roberts describes it: “A once-in-a-lifetime American treat in the pure Italian-Native American tradition.”

The frozen treat known locally as chillie bears recently made its upscale dining debut at The Grey, the new Savannah restaurant from chef Mashama Bailey.

Frozen Kool-Aid is sold out of older African-American women’s homes across the South, but the phenomenon is largely invisible beyond the boundaries of traditionally black neighborhoods.

Bailey, who last cooked at Prune in New York, says many white patrons are baffled by the one-ounce serving she presents as a “palate cleanser.”

Black customers, though, instantly recognize the homage to the Dixie cups of Bailey’s childhood.

“They know,” she says.

Almost nothing has been written about chillie bears, which have been a fixture of Lowcountry summers nearly as long as Kool-Aid has been on the market. While the treats are usually the centerpiece of informal neighborhood economies, the Coastal Ice Cream Parlor at 220 Rutledge Ave. sold them as early as the 1940s, two decades after Edwin Perkins invented the beverage powder.

“They were five cents, in a paper 3-ounce cup, and flavors of all kinds,” native Charlestonian Miriam DeAntonio recalls. “We went any time we could scare up a nickel.”

The standard chillie bear recipe calls for nothing but Kool-Aid in a cup, although the concentrated drink mix is sometimes augmented with fruit juice or pieces of fresh fruit. At The Grey, Bailey initially made her chillie bears from tea and organic cane sugar; her current formula is closer to lemonade. The chillie bear is served in a disposable souffle cup with a small wooden paddle for spooning.

But Bailey doesn’t use the term “chillie bear,” which is peculiar to Charleston. Chillie bears are called “huckabucks” in New Orleans; “freeze cups” around Norfolk, Va.; “hard cups” in Kinston, N.C.; and “ice balls” in Cincinnati. In Savannah, Bailey is giving diners a “thrill.”

The Grey is located in Savannah’s retired Greyhound bus terminal at 109 Martin Luther King Blvd. The restaurant’s Southern-inflected menu includes seafood boudin, made with Carolina gold rice, and red rice cakes. Dinner is served every night but Sunday.

Go to thegreyrestaurant.com or call 912-662-5999.