Find a sufficiently aged Nashvillian — the kind who stepped out of a Peter Taylor book, the kind who calls the young female of the species a “gull” and refers to the day before today as “yestuhday” — and ask about the term “spiced round.”
Their eyes will light up with memories of Christmases long, long ago, and the thinly sliced, heavily spiced pièce de résistance that once graced holiday tables across our city.
Except for these folks of a certain vintage and other curators of our collective gastronomic memory, the spiced round is a forgotten delicacy, a civic cultural touchstone whose popularity has waned almost to the point it will eventually disappear from the few store shelves where it can still be found.
A change in dining habits has all but eliminated demand. Its intricate, delicate, time-consuming production has done the same to its supply.
But once, it was a mainstay on Nashville holiday tables — and pretty much nowhere else.
Its story is one of necessity. In the 19th century, Nashville was a meatpacking center. Sitting astride the Cumberland, the port provided the city’s butchers with plenty of cattle and hogs coming from farms to the east, connecting them with markets to the west and a hungry population at home.
There were so many cattle, in fact, that meat slaughtered in the late summer would hardly keep until the winter. It had to be preserved.
And there were so many hogs, there was lard for the asking.
One of the German butchers — some say it was George Jacobs from Wittenberg, others say it was Alex Warner — saw the excess beef and all the lard and remembered a preparation from the old country called “rinderbraten.”
Rinderbraten is a round of beef, stuffed with pork fat, brined and rolled in a miasma of spices — allspice, brown sugar, cloves and cinnamon. It is boiled, simmered and sliced thin.
The brine solved the preservation problem. The pork fat stuffing used up the lard and made the dish more rich and filling. The Nashville butchers put their own spin on the original recipe.
Instead of stuffing the beef with the pork fat, it was larded into the meat using special horns. The Nashville version was much more heavily spiced than the original German — the lard itself was spiced, as was the brine, and more spices were pumped into the center of the meat.
The end product was — and is, if it is to be found — beef which tastes of Christmas. The product found its way on to the holiday menu at the famed Maxwell House Hotel. And from there, onto tables across Nashville, becoming a mainstay at The Hermitage and at humbler homes alike.
Long before Thornton Prince’s girlfriend rubbed his fried chicken with cayenne, creating our most famous local dish, there was spiced round.
In the 1990s though, things changed. At one time, dozens of local butchers went through the painstaking process to make the dish. But a change in eating habits — beef stuffed with lard, no matter how delicious, hardly qualifies as health food — and the passage of time has all but eliminated spiced round.
Indeed, an increasingly health-conscious population was uncomfortable with meat threaded with fat, resulting in a major change to the recipe that has endured, according to Danny Potter, who worked for spiced round producer Baltz Brothers and later Elm Hill Meats.
“There was a huge push on getting away from fat from the nutritional and cholesterol standpoint, and to make it heart-healthy, the fat was removed,” he said. “When Baltz Brothers closed, they were the only one who knew how to [add the fat] anyway. They had a special needle, and after they went out of business, the technique was lost.”
Those threads of fat are gone now, but the taste is “more or less” the same as it was in the golden age, Potter said.
“It’s still made out of beef round, and because the spices are very close to the same, the taste is very close to the same,” he said. “We used to soak them in wooden barrels. The spices are injected now.”
Potter rattles off the collection of spices that give the cut its distinctive flavor — cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, black and red pepper, ginger — but even he isn’t sure of the exact proportion. Same as ever, the recipes are guarded secrets.
There were once more than 30 meatpackers producing spiced round. Now there is just Elm Hill Meats. In 1948, Jacobs Packing Co. produced 30,000 to 40,000 pounds of spiced round. Elm Hill made 216 spiced rounds this season.
Once available from every grocer in town, it’s now just 19 stores, mostly H.G. Hills and Piggly Wiggly, almost all of them in Nashville, though Potter remembers that even at the height of its popularity, spiced round was so colloquial, it was difficult to find even in the surrounding counties.
“They used to sell them by the barrel. You’d go to the meat department and they’d pull them out of the barrel and cut whatever amount you wanted,” Potter said.
Today’s output is not large — and unlike the old days, the rounds are sold pre-packaged, pre-cut and pre-cooked — but still, Tommy Harber, the Nashville division sales manager for Elm Hill parent company Family Brands, said, for a while at least, spiced round is here to stay.
“Three years ago we decided we were going away from it. It’s not a lot of cases, and relative to hot dogs and bologna, it’s very costly and time-consuming,” he said.
“We tried to go away from it three or four years ago, but there was such an outcry, we opted to [make] it. We have no plans of discontinuing this product at this moment.”
But eventually, Harber predicts, producing even such a paltry amount will no longer be feasible.
“I anticipate it being around for 10 or 12 years, but it’s a generational thing, and a lot of that generation is no longer with us,” he said. “Eventually it will be a lost item.”
Potter has seen it coming for years.
“Each year it would go down a little more due to the older generation dying. I guess they didn’t pass it along to their children, so it wasn’t as popular. The people who ask for spiced round might be older people now, and they have to have it.”
Its savory, spicy, Christmassy flavor is uniquely Nashville — as distinctive to Old Nashville as those dropped Rs, as much a part of the holidays as Harvey’s Nativity scene. But that Nativity display — and Harvey’s — live on just in memory now, and the old linguistic distinctive is fading, too. And thus with spiced round, too.
“It’s something people years and years ago, when they celebrated Christmas, spiced round was on the table. We used to ship all over the U.S. to people who had left Nashville,” he said. “It was a big part of Christmas for those people.”
For at least a little while, it still will be.