Fueled by heavy doses of nostalgia and local lore, a largely forgotten Christmastime beef specialty called "the spiced round" is poised for a comeback in Nashville.
The cured top round -- traditionally laced with strands of lard mixed with a variety of spices including cinnamon, allspice and clove -- was popularized by the city's German and English meatpackers after the Civil War. Spiced round slices served wafer-thin on warm biscuits became a mainstay of holiday feasts running from Thanksgiving through the New Year.
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But the specialty meat reminiscent of corned beef had all but disappeared in recent decades amid changing tastes and the steady decline of local butchers to prepare it.
"It's something you always had at Christmas," says Debie Cox, a retired archivist and granddaughter of a German butcher who had a store on the city's public square.
"It's a bit of an odd, spicy meat," she says. "I didn't particularly like it as a child. I don't think most children probably would. I like it as an adult, though you can't get the real thing anymore."
Chris Carter, a Nashville native, says he had never heard of spiced round before he and business partner James Peisker founded Porter Road Butchers two years ago. The whole-animal butcher shop specializes in processing local, pasture-raised livestock.
"We have a couple customers who are just die-hard fans," Carter says.
So Porter Road Butchers set out to create its own version of the faded favorite, using its own spice recipe and braising the rounds sous vide, a gentle cooking method in which the meat is seasoned, then vacuum-sealed and cooked in a warm water bath. Carter said the rounds will be wrapped in seasoned pork back fat, a process called barding, instead of the traditional -- and more cumbersome -- larding method.
"It might not be what your grandmother ate 50 years ago, but we hope it's something people will enjoy," says Carter.
Recent media attention and research into the dish's history by Cox and others has helped rekindle enthusiasm. "Nashville is so very different now," she says. "But people want to see what the old traditions are."
The origins of the spiced round are the subject of some dispute. German immigrants and their descendants were prominent butchers in Nashville after the Civil War, giving rise to the belief that the dish had its roots in the old country.
But the city's Maxwell House hotel, later made famous for its coffee, served spiced round made by English-style butchers.
"We've had several people come in and tell us that their relatives had invented it," said Porter Road's Carter. "The story's always the same, it's just completely different people telling it to us. I think it's kind of fun."
An 1868 edition of the Nashville Union and American newspaper includes a notice of a luncheon at the Merchants Exchange that included spiced round among the "delicacies" being served. Another item on the menu that day, opossum, seems less likely to be headed for revival among the city's craft butchers.