For the love of country ham
I consider myself a fan of all things pork related. I believe bacon makes all things better, like everyone else. But I also dream of prosciutto, pancetta, coppa, salami and soppressata.
Any of the above with a stack of crackers, a chunk of sharp cheddar and a jar of mustard is a dream snack — or a meal if you eat enough of it.
As a young man, my friends dreamed of striking it rich, buying nice cars and fancy clothes, and traveling the world. My financial goals were more modest. I simply wanted enough cash left at the end of the month to buy all the meat and cheese my heart (or stomach) desired. If you’re curious, the newspaper business has yet to produce these kinds of riches.
I have been blessed, however, with the good fortune of attending a pig-pickin’ in North Carolina, which is an unrivaled culinary experience. The same goes for a “pig in a pit” in Mississippi, or as we called it “burying a pig.”
Both result in enough delicious, succulent pork to feed an army.
Despite my ample experience with the pig — I once had a summer job slopping pigs — before this year, I had never purchased a country ham.
I had seen them, hanging from the rafters of country stores, covered in mold. I had eaten slices of the heavenly stuff, usually at Cracker Barrel. But I had never actually pulled one down and taken it home.
I grew up eating city ham, which is typically the only kind of ham you can buy in grocery stores. City ham is cured in a solution of salt, water and other goodies and usually smoked. It’s the kind of ham most of us know and love.
But country ham is a different beast. It’s more common in the Carolinas, Tennessee and Virginia than here in Mississippi.
Country hams were the only hams people knew back when hog killings were a way of life. Sadly, I was never fortunate enough to attend such an event, and I haven’t had the guts to try it myself at the house. I don’t think my wife would approve of the several hours-long process that turns Wilbur into chops, roasts, bacon, hams and, eventually my favorite, pulled pork sandwiches.
Country ham does not taste like city ham. It is salty and intensely flavored. It’s almost always bone-in, and it typically is uncooked if it’s hanging in the back of a country store. To produce the deep, rich flavor, the hams are dry-cured and then aged from a few months to several years. That’s where the mold comes from.
I recently had the honor of unwrapping a country ham, and to be honest I had no clue what to do with the thing once I did. It was a whole ham, meaning it was most of the leg of the animal. It looked more like something the dog would drag up than a culinary delicacy.
But I took a chef’s knife and went to work trying to get some manageable slices. I quickly realized I needed more than a knife. So the hacksaw came out, and eventually the shank end of the leg was off and the crimson meat showed itself.
Being a country ham newbie, I presumed the thing had been smoked and was ready to eat. It was not. I only learned this after ingesting several delicious bites of presumably raw meat. I didn’t die, but we decided to cook the rest of it for good measure.
Now we are addicted to it. I have eaten ham at least once a day, sometimes two, for the past couple weeks. When it is sliced thick and cooked with a spoonful of brown sugar in a cast iron skillet, it’s the stuff dreams are made of.
Sadly, country hams and the art of preparing them seem to be disappearing. Maybe Brookhaven has a secret country ham stash somewhere, but I couldn’t find it. The one I recently brought home came from Williams Bros. in Philadelphia, the finest country store in the state — maybe the South — in my opinion.
Sure, they can be ordered online but that’s not the same as choosing one that’s hanging from the ceiling. So many of the things that make Southern culture special are being lost, country hams included. Dairy farms are harder to find these days. I remember drinking milk straight from a huge, stainless tank right after it left the cow. That’s not something most people do these days.
Few families raise a pig for slaughter anymore. And while raising chickens is something New York hipsters have caught on to, most folks in Mississippi buy eggs at the grocery store. Gardens, thankfully, are still aplenty in the South.
One of my favorite authors once wrote: “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.”
We lose something when we don’t work for our food, when we don’t know where it comes from or what it takes to make it. I’m not pointing fingers. While we have chickens, a garden and plan to slaughter a cow for this year’s meat, I depend on the grocery store like everyone else.
But if country hams get any harder to find, I may get desperate enough to learn the fine art of hanging pigs from the rafters.