Long a staple of holiday tables across Nashville — and virtually nowhere else — spiced round looked to be headed for extinction.
The thinly sliced, heavily spiced top round was a Music City distinction. In the 19th century, the once-numerous meatpackers in Germantown would find themselves facing winter with an overabundance of beef that in those pre-refrigeration days needed preserving. Harkening back to the spicy meats of their homeland, the butchers — the Warners and the Baltzes and the Jacobs — adapted a recipe for rinderbraten, a round of beef stuffed with pork fat, brined and spiced with a special mixture of cinnamon, allspice, cloves and brown sugar.
In Nashville, butchers larded the beef with pork fat — special needles injected spiced lard into the meat — and then boiled and simmered it. Spiced round was born.
It was the centerpiece of Christmas dinner at the Maxwell House Hotel and at The Hermitage, and eventually at homes across the city.
But its popularity waned when the old independent meatpacking operations died out, and when an increasingly health-conscious population turned its nose up at befatted beef.
Last year, Elm Hill Meats — the last mass producer of spiced round — made just 216 spiced rounds, available at 19 stores across the city, mostly Piggly Wigglys and H.G. Hills. By comparison, in 1948, Jacobs Packing Co. made 40,000 pounds of the stuff.
In a December 2012 interview in The City Paper, Tommy Harber, the Nashville division sales manager for Elm Hill parent company Family Brands, said he anticipated that within a decade Elm Hill would stop making it too, as the older generation of Nashvillians who "needed" spiced round disappeared.
But the predictions of the extinction of this uniquely Nashville meat were premature. James Peisker and Chris Carter of Porter Road Butcher say they played around with making spiced round last year, filling a few walk-in orders.
"We made it last year, and it was delicious," Peisker says.
This year, though, they are confident enough in their "modern spin" on the old product that they'll be taking pre-orders starting the week after Thanksgiving and running through the week before Christmas, selling for $15 per pound. (Elm Hill's sells for $12 per pound.)
The foundations of the familiar spiced round are still there — Porter Road will use a proprietary blend of the essential spices, based on a recipe they were given by the great-granddaughter of one of the old Germantown meat packers.
There will be a few differences in technique. Instead of larding the beef with needles — a process Peisker says results in finished product that "looks cool," but is incredibly time-consuming — Porter Road will bard the beef, wrapping it in spiced pork backfat. The round will then be vacuum-sealed in a brine — the modern take on the traditional practice of brining the beef in large oak barrels. Finally, instead of boiling, the spiced round will be prepared sous-vide in the brine before being lightly roasted, cutting the prep time from three weeks to one.
Spiced round — even as difficult as it has been to find — is still essential to many Christmas celebrations across the city. After the City Paper story ran, emails rolled in with home recipes and memories of when every holiday party in town centered on the tissue-paper-thin sliced meat that smells and tastes like Christmas.
Changing eating habits and a time-intensive, high-cost method of production put this culinary rarity on the chopping block, but good food is good food — even if it's old-school or largely forgotten.
As anyone who has piled up a hot roll with the spicy holiday treat can attest, spiced round is good food indeed — and an effort to save it is an effort to save something sui generis to Nashville, and that's worth all the effort it takes.
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