Alice wanted a ham for Christmas dinner, and might I know where to get a good one? That’s Alice Waters. It was December 20, so time was short, but a tip from the kitchen at The Inn at Little Washington led me to Tom Calhoun of Calhoun’s Ham House & Country Deli in Culpeper, Virginia.
Would I like that ham boneless and cooked, Calhoun inquired in his gentle Southern accent, or did I want it raw and bone in? Bone in, of course. “It’ll go out tomorrow,” he assured me. “I think you’ll have it in plenty of time if you plan to soak it.”
Soak it? What was he talking about?
He was talking about country ham, I soon discovered—a Virginia country ham, to be specific. It’s cured with a salt and brown sugar rub and, amazingly, a six-week stint in 75°F to 90°F heat. “Sometimes it’s called sugar cured,” Calhoun said, and many people “think it’s gonna taste sweet. Well, 85 percent of the cure is salt, and salt is what does the curing.”
The country ham is our native prosciutto or serrano, though most Southerners wouldn’t dream of throwing an uncooked leg on a deli slicer and shaving some to go with the asparagus. Most Northerners, meanwhile, have never heard of it.
A Northerner myself, I decided to order both a cooked and a raw ham from Calhoun —and, just in case, a backup ham from well above the Mason-Dixon line, from Flying Pigs Farm in upstate New York.
The history of the country ham is the history of preservation without refrigeration. Traditionally the process began in the late fall and winter when the weather turned cold. The hogs were slaughtered, and their back legs were rubbed down with a salt-based cure; the exact ingredients were often closely guarded family secrets.
|The USDA hasn’t advised for or against the question of raw country ham. No one wants to ask for fear of starting trouble.|
When spring arrived and temperatures began to rise, the hams were washed of their cure and hung to dry in the “hanging house.” When the time was right, the hams were smoked and then put back up to hang some more. All of this was done to prime the hams for the hot summer months ahead. And salt was used liberally. “But you didn’t worry about too much salt back then,” says Calhoun. “You worried about the ham going bad hanging up in the barn in July and August. And besides, you needed all that salt when you were out there in the fields sweating behind the mule.”
Surviving the summer, or the “July sweats” as it’s known, is what gives the ham its deep flavor. As it hangs, it becomes covered with mold. When the weather heats up, the ham expands, and the meat absorbs some of the mold. It’s this mold, along with the cure, that gives the meat its character.
“And every ham house has its own mold,” according to Lady Colonel Nancy Newsom Mahaffey, of Princeton, Kentucky, whose family has been putting up hams in the Virginia style for generations. She earned the title of Lady Colonel from the state of Kentucky for her work curing hams. “So when it gets so hot in the summer and I think I just can’t stand it one more minute, I say to myself, ‘Nancy, the hotter the summer, the better the ham.’”
Atmospheric conditions dictate most of a ham’s development. The weather determines when a batch of hams “come up”— when they’re washed and hung to dry. It also determines how long they hang and even which day they’re smoked. You can smoke hams on a nice day or a rainy one, but a very humid day will generate a lot of heat. “You’ve gotta be careful,” says Mahaffey. “And it’s not all over with once you hang ’em up. Do I need to pass air over them today or not? There is an intuition to it.”
With modern heating and refrigeration, hams now can be made year-round. At Calhoun’s they’re made four or five times per year, though the majority are still started in the winter because “green” or fresh, uncured hams command the best price. The cure is rubbed on the ham. It’s reapplied two weeks later. Then the ham sits on a shelf at 38°F to 40°F for about 40 days. The cure is washed off, and the ham goes through 10 days of 50° to 55° temperatures. After that it goes to the “heated room” for six weeks, where the temperature is cranked up to 75°F to 90°F. The procedure simply mimics what happened out in the barn.
But to sell hams to the public, the USDA must approve the curing process. In Calhoun’s case, the CIA must, as well. Somebody very important in Washington is ordering Calhoun’s hams, because from time to time the agents visit Culpeper. “They’re not really interested in the curing process. They want to know you’ve got a handle on everyone working for you.” So far country hams have not been declared a threat. “Probably the safest thing to eat in the meat business,” Calhoun declares, “is a country ham.”
Like wine, a ham develops nuanced flavors with age. Mahaffey prefers the “exquisite” flavor of her 15-month-old hams; Calhoun has one hanging in the store that’s of the same vintage as the first hams he sent out 25 years ago. “You can still eat it,” he says. The longer the ham ages, though, the harder and saltier it becomes. “The ones my grandfather loved were a year old,” he says. “But most people nowadays don’t like them that salty and that hard.” He also offers hams for sale already cooked.
“You have to understand something about Southern cooking: People will cook something and cook it again. There is no such thing as blanched green beans in the South. And most people will cook these hams to death. It’s true. I never ate a piece of toast that wasn’t burnt until I was an adult.”
Do you have to cook these hams to eat them? The USDA hasn’t ruled on the subject because no one has ever pushed to have raw country ham sanctioned. The fear is that the USDA would require a label saying country hams shouldn’t be eaten raw.
Most Southerners would never think of eating an uncooked ham. “We would never put it on the table raw,” asserts Calhoun. Not surprisingly, then, each person seems to have his or her own way of cooking a ham—boiling, steam-baking, frying with or without coffee grounds.
Here’s how Mahaffey cooks her hams: First, remove any excess mold by scrubbing the ham with a bristle brush and a vinegar-and-water solution. Then soak the ham overnight in cold water in a cool place. (For hams more than a year old, soak for two nights, changing the water once.)
Drain off the soaking water and fill the pot with new water to cover the ham. The ham should be floating in the water. Add 1 cup brown sugar and 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar to the pot and bring to a roiling boil. Then turn the heat down so the water just “breaks a bubble.” Cover and cook 15 to 20 minutes per pound. Turn off the heat, remove the lid, and let the ham cool in the water. (If you don’t remove the lid, you’ll have a “big pile of mush,” according to Mahaffey.) An additional note of caution from Calhoun: “The older the ham, the less cooking time.”
After the ham has cooled, remove it, pat it dry, and trim off some of the skin while leaving some of the fat on. Mahaffey likes to serve her hams at room temperature sliced about 1/8 inch thick.
The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service gets right to the point: “The word ham means pork, which comes from the hind leg of a hog,” and “Hams are either ready-to-eat or not.”
If only it were that simple. The American country ham lexicon includes a long list of terms: fully cooked, uncooked, smoked, long-cured, bone in, nitrites, nitrates, salt-cured, sugar-cured, Smithfield, center cut, half ham. Bottom line: The product closest to Italian prosciutto is a country ham cured and aged for so long that its meat is perfectly preserved and requires no cooking at all. According to Nancy Newsom Mahaffey of Col. Bill Newsom’s Aged Kentucky Ham, a country ham can be eaten safely without cooking after 10 months of aging (other sources say 6 months). Complicating matters is the fact that some hams labeled for cooking first—a way to protect against regulation—actually don’t need it. Unnecessary cooking will result in tough, rubbery meat rather than a sweet, melt-in-the-mouth experience.
In Colonial America, hogs were the least destructible, most economical form of animal protein to raise. Dairy cattle needed smooth, open fields to thrive, and fowl and sheep were easy prey for wild animals, whereas hogs were tough and could forage on marginal farmland while the homesteaders took time for more pressing work. Slaughtered and processed in the late fall, hogs became the winter’s food, a long-lasting commodity that stored well before refrigeration and good roads changed the nation’s eating habits.
Dry curing, as opposed to the brine-injected or “city” cure of most grocery-store ham, is still done in traditional ways that date back to the mid-1600s. Tidewater Virginia produced the first country hams, but the practice spread throughout the Southeast. The cure is made of salt and sometimes sugar for tenderness, pepper, and nitrites or nitrates to speed curing and impart a deep, pink color. Hams are usually rubbed with cure twice and kept around 40°F for a month, during which the salt preserve penetrates to the bone. Excess rub is removed, and then the hams are wrapped and aged at various temperatures for six months to a year or longer. Smoking over a low hardwood fire is optional. The exact recipes are secret.
Country hams that require cooking have their own lore. They sometimes come crusted in benign mold; scrub that off, then soak the whole ham for up to three days in several changes of water to draw out extra salt, and keep scrubbing. Then either steam-bake or simmer. The stove-top slow-simmer method calls for water plus anything fun, according to Sam Edwards, president of longtime country ham producers S. Wallace Edwards & Sons: ginger ale, cider, wine, Coca-Cola, vodka. The hard part is finding a vessel big enough to hold the ham and water to cover it. Oven-steamed ham requires less water but involves lots of temperature changes and clock watching.
Producers are making it easy to try country ham a little bit at a time by doing some of the cooking themselves and shipping small quantities. Don’t be put off by the shiny, vacuum-sealed packaging—as long as the label says “Made in USA.”
Photographs by Kate Lacey