The farm-to-table movement has been gaining in popularity, with restaurants throughout Northwestern Nevada promoting their locally sourced meats, produce, and other ingredients. In this segment of Time & Place, historian Alicia Barber takes us back to our region’s agricultural roots, when eating farm-to-table was just a part of everyday life.
Northern Nevada’s agricultural heritage lives on in the names of subdivisions like Caughlin Ranch, Double Diamond Ranch, and Damonte Ranch, all named for the historic Reno ranches they replaced. A large number of those in the area were owned by Italian families, who brought an abundant array of culinary traditions with them from the old country.
Nello Gonfiantini, Jr. was born to an Italian family in Reno in 1926 and spent much of his childhood in Empire, a once-active mining town about a hundred miles north of Sparks. Every autumn, as the weather got colder, his relatives got together for an annual tradition that he described in 2005.
"What they would do, they would buy a pig or a hog, and in our case we split that with my aunt—my aunt and uncle, who lived next door," he said. "From that, we would have pig’s feet; we would have pork chops; we would have pork roast. And then they would make sausage out of it, and then the hindquarters they would make a prosciutto; the prosciutto is the hindquarter of the pig. So nothing was wasted; every bit of it was used up."
Families might specialize in products like headcheese, blood sausage, or pancetta. Curing meats Italian-style not only connected families like his to their roots, but served a practical purpose, too.
"In those days, you know, there was no refrigeration when we first did this," Gonfiantini Jr. says. "And you had to find some way to preserve your meats because if you had any fresh meat, you’d have to eat it in the first couple of days there or it would spoil. And so whatever meats you had, you couldn’t keep for a long period of time, unless it was cured."
Robert Capurro’s family had two ranches: one in Sparks and another on what is now the north end of the University of Nevada campus in Reno. In 2005, he explained that processing a whole hog, as his family often did through the 1940's, was a true community effort.
Different groups in town would get together," Capurro says. "And I’d come and help you, and you’d come and help me, because it’s too much work for two or three people to make all of this stuff, because it’s all done simultaneously. So while one’s doing the salami, one’s doing the sausage. And they all had basements with wood floors in them so the salami could cure down there."
Salami was hung from shelves or wooden beams to keep the mice away. Prosciutto was first pressed down with a large stone to remove all the liquid, then rubbed with salt, pepper, and olive oil. Gonfiantini explained what happened next.
"And they were set there in the cool of the basement, or in the cellar, and that would take several months for it to get cured. And it was used over a period of time, over months."
Curing meats at home became less common in the area as the older generations passed on, and most farms and ranches gave way to urban development. But thanks to the growing popularity of handcrafted, locally sourced foods, it’s becoming easier than it’s been in a long time to get a taste of those time-honored traditions.
Historian Alicia Barber is the editor of the website and smart phone app Reno Historical. Oral history clips for this segment were provided by the Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries.
These and other oral histories about the Italian-American Experience in Northwestern Nevada can be found here. You can also view the entire cookbook, Famiglia e Cucina: Stories and Recipes from Northwestern Nevada’s Italian-American Community.