Country Ham Local Table


WC: 1113

By Stephen Ornes

For most people, spring time is no time to be thinking about Christmas. The temperatures climb and the bugs return and the white petals of bloodroots and star magnolias mark the change of season. The chill of winter and echoes of holiday cheer seem long past. And yet, in smokehouses with dark, charred walls, all across central Tennessee, preparations are underway.

For many people, Christmas isn't Christmas without a country ham. The intrepid producers of that regional delicacy were thinking about next December before last December had expired. They've already slaughtered last year's pigs, carved up the hams and enshrouded them in a dry blanket of salt, sugar and other seasonings. For these people, the darling buds of spring signal it's time to rinse off that salty mantle and hang the hams in the smokehouse to finish the lengthy curing process. Country ham is clearly not fast food.

"It takes about a year to cure," says Troy Smiley of Smiley's Farms in Ridgetop, TN. Troy's family has been curing country hams since the time Tennessee joined the Union initially. "We don't call it a ham until November or December."

Country hams are cured. This process means they're not baked. They are prepared without water or brine. That salt blanket seeps all the way to the bone at the center, wringing out moisture and making the whole ham inhospitable to bacteria. Artisanal country ham producers apply the salt cure in the winter when the temperatures are low enough to avoid spoilage. It's the way people in Tennessee - and Georgia, the Carolinas, the Virginias, and Kentucky - have been preserving meat for hundreds of years.

That doesn't mean every purveyor of country ham follows the same recipe. On the contrary, "even just in Tennessee, there are lots of differences," says Jaymie Perry from the Hamery in Murfreesboro. "It could be your salt and sugar mixture; it could be what you use to smoke with. Even the size of ham that you start with could make a difference." In the dark racks of the Hamery's smokehouse, about 1200 hams are being cured for Christmas.

The interaction of these variables - temperature, humidity, ingredients, wood for smoking - creates the final product. Smiley says he burns hickory sawdust in the smokehouse, because it's abundant in his area. Others might use sassafras or apple for smoking. He says his system is no secret. He's been watching how the other guys do it. He adopts the approaches he likes and ignores those he doesn't. "My method is a mix of other methods," he says. "I guess I'm a sponge of other people's ideas."

Perry and Smiley, as well as other small ham producers, do share one thing in common. It takes time to produce a quality ham. The changing temperature and humidity of spring and summer grow the flavor of the ham. Jesse Goldstein, from the Loveless Cafe in Nashville, says that large commercial operations can speed up the curing process with strict climate control, artificially inducing seasonal changes and producing a country ham in less than half the time. Although a novice might not notice a difference in the two, he says the aging process adds a depth of flavor that's missing from the factory-cured hams. "We live in a time of instant gratification and immediacy, but some things really need to be done low and slow," he says. Lon Loveless, the founder of the Loveless Cafe, used to cure their famous hams in a small building now used as an office.

Country ham, like fine wine or gourmet cheese, vary by region and gain character with age. People take pride in their regional ham. Country hams win ribbons at state fairs. Towns dedicate festivals to the food. In 2011, the National Country Ham Association held their annual meeting in Nashville.

People have been curing meat for thousands of years. As a result county hams' cousins can be found around the world. In China, ask for Yunnan ham. In Germany it's called Westphalian. In France it is known as Bayonne. Czechs will recognize their familiar Prague ham in country ham. Spanish chefs know it as Iberian. The familiar type of country ham in Tennessee probably bears the closest resemblance to the Italian prosciutto.

Chefs, producers and other connoisseurs will attest that the taste of country ham bears little resemblance to other pork products. "Country hams are distinct in their salty, smoky flavor," observes Mark F. Sohn in his cookbook Appalachian Home Cooking. "The meat is firm but velvety in texture. Before it is cooked, it is a deep amber or maroon color."

Not everyone agrees on the best way to prepare a slice. In Italy, prosciutto is usually eaten raw - though Tennesseans haven't embraced that practice. Instead, says Smiley, most people err on the side of too much heat. "Most people overcook it," says Smiley. "Tennessee country ham is basically the same thing as prosciutto, which Italians eat raw and uncooked. But what a lot of people tend to do is cook it to death. I don't like it like that."

At the Loveless, like many restaurants, you can get a slice on a biscuit. Smiley says he prefers to cook country ham just long enough to change the color of the fat to a "nice tan." Another popular way to prepare it is to douse it with soda and bake it; others may boil the ham with a can of cola. Smiley calls a boiled ham "wasted." Sohn notes in his book that country ham can be wrapped around figs, apples, melons or pecans and served as an appetizer; it might also liven up a pot of beans or soup. In Italy, prosciutto figures prominently in many sauces and dishes - easily adapted to Appalachian palates.

In Italy, much of the later curing process takes place in cooler caves. That's not the case in the sweltering summers of the South. To make it to December, a country ham has to survive the "summer sweats." These are the weeks in August and September when the temperatures soar. "If there's anything bad about the ham, it'll come out by then," says Smiley. But once those months pass, the hams head into the final weeks, the orders start coming in and the fat pigs start to get nervous as the producers start thinking ahead for the next year.

For the people who produce country hams, the long wait and the attention to detail are all worth the final product. "Some people argue politics, some argue sports," says Troy Smiley. "However the hams are something I'll argue about. For some reason or another, that's my passion."