Nine years ago, Herb Eckhouse, then a 50-year-old Des Moines seed-company executive who’d been based in Parma, got a glimmer of what he’d like to do with his early retirement.
He was eating prosciutto in Parma with a friend who said, “You know, if you make something this good, you’re going to make a lot of people happy.” A ham-shaped light bulb went off, Eckhouse recalled.
For years, he imagined making good food in Iowa. “It was clear that we had this incredible bounty around us, but we weren’t known for creating great stuff to eat,” he told me, stretching his rangy frame at his dining room table.
(Clearly things have changed: his wife, Kathy, was serving us apple pie whose heartbreaking crust was made with lard rendered from acorn-fed organic Berkshire pigs, their latest project.)
“At the beginning of the 20th century, Iowa fed people. And here we are in the 21st century, and we’re feeding machines. It’s just a priori wrong.” He continued: “People were saying, ‘Iowa’s dying, and there’s no value added here.’ At that point I was thinking, Gosh, I wonder if we can make prosciutto in Iowa.”
In 2001, La Quercia (“oak” in Italian) was born. Eckhouse, a Harvard social-studies major in the ’60s, spent four years studying prosciutto-making. The couple would move their Volvo wagon out of the garage to weigh and salt legs, then age them in their guest bedroom. The first official prosciutto was shipped from their state-of-the-art plant near Des Moines in September 2005.
. . . The Eckhouses are determined to not make an Italian facsimile. They might be advised by a consultant in Parma, but they call their product prosciutto Americano.
In case you're wondering about the quality of the Eckhouses' prosciutto, you should know that food writer Jeffrey Steingarten declared it the best prosciutto (foreign or domestic) he had ever tasted.