In her 1976 book, “The Taste of Country Cooking,” the late, great chef Edna Lewis wrote that, in her home town of Freetown, Virginia, a farming community founded by former slaves, “ham held the same rating as the basic black dress. If you had a ham in the meat house, any situation could be faced.” André Mack has a ham in the meat house, and then some. In January, Mack, a sommelier and winemaker who once ran the beverage program at Per Se, opened & Sons, a “ham bar,” in Prospect-Leﬀerts Gardens, with a menu oﬀering no fewer than ten diﬀerent country hams, all sourced domestically, plus American-made wines (including bottles from his own label, Maison Noir, out of Oregon), cheeses, and other charcuterie. And then, just as he was starting to consistently ﬁll its twenty seats, the coronavirus swept through New York.
Luckily, & Sons was always conceived as a two-part operation: Mack, who lives in the neighborhood with his wife, the writer Phoebe Damrosch, and their four boys, had already planned to open & Sons Buttery, a ham-centric grocery, next door. (He also owns Vyne Yard, a nearby wine store.) The Buttery was slated to début in July, but, after the bar was forced to close, he got the shop open for curbside pickup in April. As of last week, customers may enter the premises, two at a time.
Thanks to & Sons Buttery, I have added to my larder luscious, creamy sheets of Benton’s Extra-Aged, from Tennessee, hickory-smoked and hung to dry for around two years, and ruddy, bracingly funky slices of cured Lady Edison, from North Carolina. I have swooned over springy pale-pink mortadella, speckled with bright-green Sicilian pistachios, made from Midwest-raised, heritage-breed pork by Tempesta Artisans, a small company in Chicago. Mack recently told me that his decision to carry only domestic products has been taken by some as a nationalistic gesture, but “that’s not it,” he said. “The way we romanticize Italy and France—I realized that we could do that here. We’ve been curing hams for over one hundred years. It’s a celebration of American food heritage.”
The ham that Mack grew up on was of the spiral-cut, glazed, and baked variety, plus a New Jersey specialty called Taylor Pork Roll; his mother is from Trenton, and her family was from North Carolina. As an adult, Mack developed a passion for European charcuterie, and for vintage meat slicers: “First time I went into any Bastianich restaurant, I was, like, ‘What’s that thing back there that looks like a Ferrari?’ ” In 2013, he bought a slicer on Craigslist, from a deli on Long Island, and was shocked to find that it was made, in 1910, in the United States. American country hams, though produced in a similar fashion to jamón serrano or prosciutto, have not traditionally been sliced thin, Mack noted—“You cut off hunks of it, you threw it in the frying pan”—but chefs including David Chang and Sean Brock were starting to treat them like the finest salumi. Mack had been excited by the renaissance of American cheese and wine in the past couple of decades. Now was the time for American ham.
Upending perspectives in the culinary world is familiar territory for Mack, who was the first black person to win the prestigious Best Young Sommeliers Competition, hosted by a gastronomical society founded in Paris in 1950. He started his career waiting tables at a Red Lobster in Texas. After college, he found himself watching a lot of “Frasier.” “The way they talked about wine just made it seem like I was missing out,” he told me. “That show gave me the courage to walk into a wine store,” where, when someone poured him a taste and asked what he thought, he quipped, “It’s no Château d’Yquem”—a Frasier favorite—and got a big laugh. “Everybody’s, like, ‘How is it being a black man in such a white industry?’ It’s no different than any other day of my life,” Mack said. “Every day I show up, I challenge the status quo. Hey, I’m here. That’s how I choose to confront it.” ♦