In Praise of America’s Own World-Class Ham, by John Willoughby and Chris Schlesinger, Dec. 17, 1997

“If a prophet is without honor in his own country, sometimes a pig is, too. Or at least a ham.

During the decade-long craze for all foods Italian, Americans have come to appreciate the many virtues of prosciutto and have learned to handle it with a certain amount of respect. But when it comes to America’s own dry-cured, aged country hams, a curious kind of culinary inversion seems to prevail. The same knowledgeable cooks who prize the rich, complex flavors of prosciutto tend to think of its American cousins as if they were watery canned hams, fit only for boiling or baking and eating in thick slices.

This lack of gustatory respect is quite unwarranted, since the best American hams are produced with the same delicate care, using the same procedures as the other great dry-cured hams of the world: the Yunan hams of China, the serranos of Spain and the Westphalian hams of Germany, in addition to prosciutto.

There is, however, one American ham that has been considered worthy company to these others: the Smithfield ham of Virginia. Part of this ham’s appeal is its pedigree, which is enforced by a 1926 Virginia law that makes it illegal to call a ham ‘genuine Smithfield’ unless it has been dry-cured, then aged for a minimum of 180 days within the Tidewater town of Smithfield. Country hams from elsewhere in the South are cured in the same way but may not necessarily be aged as long.

Even Smithfield fans, though, shy away from eating it uncooked, as they would prosciutto. Over the years we have argued — to any ham devotee who would listen — that the Smithfield, along with its lesser-known compatriots from Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky, is a world-class ham fully capable of being used as their more revered international compatriots are: added uncooked to dishes as a kind of flavoring agent, rather than served in slabs as a hearty entree. Used this way, Smithfield ham can add layers of rich, deep, complex flavor to a whole range of dishes.

Curiously, the fine aged hams of the American South are most appreciated by diners abroad and in immigrant communities in the United States whose culinary heritage includes other long-aged ham. Larry Santure, the vice president of V. W. Joyner & Company (757-357-2161), a major ham producer in Smithfield, says many of the company’s finest hams are shipped to Asian restaurants in California as a substitute for Yunan hams, or flown to Europe bearing the Spanish label ‘tipo serrano,’ that is, serrano style.

Samuel W. Edwards 3d, the president of S. Wallace Edwards & Sons (800-222-4267) in Surry, Va., which sells Smithfield-style country hams aged for 180 days or more, said that his longest-aged hams are often shipped to New England, where Portuguese-Americans eat them uncooked, as they would the presuntos of their native country.

‘Really, the way to get the full, intense flavor of these longer aged hams is to eat them uncooked,’ Mr. Edwards said.

To create any of these hams, the hind quarter (leg and shank) of a hog are dry-cured in a salt mixture, rather than wet-cured in a salt brine, a quicker process that results in blunter flavors. The hams may then be smoked, usually over hickory. They are then air-dried for at least six months, a process crucial to the final flavor.

As the cure penetrates during the long, slow drying, the meat becomes firmer and denser. This concentrates the flavor, deepening it and adding complexity, much as fermentation does to grape juice. The salt level in the meat also increases during aging, preventing the growth of bacteria and parasites. As a result, the cured ham is ready to eat and does not have to be refrigerated; in fact, it can be covered with a cloth and left out on the cutting board for the whole holiday season.

A 15-pound Smithfield-style ham will cost $50 to $60.

The flavors of these artisanal hams used to be attributed to the hog’s particular diets: peanuts for Smithfield hams, beechnuts for prosciutto, and so on. Today most hogs are fed a uniform diet scientifically designed to produce leaner, faster-growing hogs. But as with choice wines or cheeses, the particular flavors of top-quality hams are still shaped by the skill of the maker and the characteristics of the locale.

‘In addition to the curing mixture, the smoking time and material, and the aging time, you also have natural bacteria and flora in each location that influence taste,’ said Mr. Edwards, the curemaster for his family company.

This means that the curemaster’s ‘individual sense of touch, smell, taste and sight is crucial,’ he added.

In a quest for a deeper understanding of these hams — and to be absolutely sure that our position on not cooking them was correct — we once cured our own. After rubbing raw meat fresh from the butcher with salt, letting it hang three days for an initial dehydration, then packing it in salt and weighing it down for six more days so that it was totally covered in salt, we hung it in Chris’s basement to dry.

After eight months, the now-shriveled ham was completely covered with a greenish-blue mold and had a sharp, cheesy smell. But when we scraped off the surface mold and cut the first slice, it had a fantastically rich, complex flavor that rivaled any prosciutto we have ever tasted.

When substituting Smithfield or other aged country hams for prosciutto, keep in mind that the American hams are slightly denser, which makes them more difficult to slice very thin. If presentation is important, a butcher can slice the ham for you. In other cases, julienned ham works fine and is less bother.

And remember that these hams are quite salty, so add less salt to the recipe than you ordinarily might.”

-Excerpt and images courtesy of The New York Times, Times Machine, “In Praise of America’s Own World-Class Ham,” by John Willoughby and Chris Schlesinger, Dec. 17, 1997

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