What in the World is a Country Ham?
By Phil Sparks
Before the age of refrigeration, the local butchers sold fresh-cut pork only from freshly slaughtered hogs. Consumers had to buy, cook, and eat the pork right away.
That system was okay in the city, but in the country, a single family often had to make a couple of hogs last all year. The pork had to be preserved and the only way to preserve it was to “cure” it with salt. People have been curing pork for centuries, and no single cut has demanded as much loving attention as the cured ham, the right or left hindquarter of a hog.
Cured hams are as popular in Europe as they are in the United States. In ancient times, the Romans cured hams. More recently, a Bohemian man blessed with a newborn daughter might cure a ham that first winter in hopes of serving it at her wedding. Only a few years ago, I ate lunch at a restaurant in Belgium that had 16 cured hams hanging from the rafters. (Fool that I am, I ordered mussels and fries.) On another occasion, I asked a Norwegian farmer if he ever cured hams. “No,” he said with a smile, “my neighbors cure them. I just eat them.”
Germans cure Westphalian hams, and the French cure Dijon hams, but the most famous of European cured hams is the Italian prosciutto (PRO SHOE TOE). Italians breed and feed their hogs carefully and process their hams in accordance with strict regulations to produce this incredibly expensive delicacy. I once ordered prosciutto for lunch. I may be prejudiced, but I think it’s bland when compared to its well-cured American cousin. (An Italian friend once remarked that the best Italian wines never leave Italy. Perhaps the same can be said for the best prosciutto.)
What a hog eats affects the taste of the ham. The American chestnut tree, which once ruled our Eastern forests but is now virtually extinct, produced great quantities of delicious chestnuts. According to The Foxfire Book, many 19th-century farmers fed their hogs on these plentiful nuts to improve the taste of their pork.
Some Virginians and North Carolinians prefer cured ham from peanut-fed hogs. I’ve never tasted it, but friends from North Carolina tell me that it’s far too oily.
The most significant advancement in curing hams may have come when Europeans invaded America and introduced hogs to the new world. The Native Americans grew corn (maize), a grain unknown in Europe. Hog met corn, and to this day, country hams from corn-fed hogs are generally considered the best. Luckily, corn is relatively cheap, so most hogs are corn-fed. (Most Europeans now feed their hogs corn but are horrified at the thought of eating it themselves).
Once we have that corn-fed hog, how do we go about curing hams? Vast numbers of hams are now cured in factories where solutions of salt and nitrates are injected into the hams, but most of the farmers who still cure hams produce them by using one of two traditional methods: curing them in a saltbox or handrubbing them.
Factory-cured hams are injected with a mixture of brine (salt water) and nitrates, allowed to age three months or so, and shipped to supermarkets where they are sold at extremely low prices. They may be exposed to a hardwood fire for a few hours, flavored with “liquid smoke,” or smoked not at all. The brands of factory-cured hams commonly available in Middle Tennessee include Clifty Farm, Harper Valley, and Smithfield.
Many people do not consider factory-cured hams to be true country hams. I heard one old-timer refer to them sarcastically as “90-day wonders.” My mother would have nothing to do with them. If she couldn’t find a farm-cured ham, she went without — and she would have been the first to admit that not all farm-cured hams are good.
We definitely prefer farm-cured hams. We do believe, however, that the factory-cured variety is better than no country ham at all. Besides, they are inexpensive and someone else does all the work. Without them, countless southern restaurants would have to drop country ham from their menus because farm-cured hams cannot be served in restaurants since federal food inspectors refuse to check out small operations. What’s more, those commercially shrink-wrapped slices, requiring no refrigeration, are ideal for camping and backpacking.
Some factory-cured hams may be every bit as good as the farm-cured variety. Broadbent hams, produced in Cadiz, Kentucky, are saltbox cured the traditional way, hickory smoked, and aged a full year. They can be ordered by phone at a reasonable price (1-800-841-2202).
Similar quality can be had in a “genuine” Smithfield ham, but they are expensive. You can order them via the internet (www. smithfieldhams.com).
This method is by far the most common for turning out farm-cured hams. In Tennessee, the process usually begins around the first of January. The curing agent — pure meat salt — is poured over the floor of a hardwood box. The hams are added, covered with more salt, and left in the box for 21 to 49 days, the average being about 28 days. Then the ham is removed from the box, the salt is rinsed off to stop the curing process, and the hams are hung in the smokehouse to be smoked and aged.
Country hams are usually smoked with green hickory for 1 to 30 days. The smoke works with the salt to protect the ham from insects and bacteria. After being smoked, the hams are aged anywhere from three months to five years. One year of aging is okay, but my mother considered two years to be ideal, and I know a man who won’t sell his hams until they have aged five years.
Sadly, the sale of country hams is declining as we are taught to fear salt and fatty meat. Still, those of us who know and love the taste of a genuine farm-cured ham and who enjoy consuming them in moderation, will do our best to keep the ancient art of curing hams alive.