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January 8, 2010

RoCK hams it up

RoCKham.jpgThis is one of Robert of Cross Key's best Free Market Friday guest posts yet, and it continues today's piggy theme. He calls himself a poor carver, but those ham slices look pretty good to me. EL

Right before the holidays, I went in search of ham. Not that tasteless flesh sold by Hillshire Farms and Hormel -- I’m talking about real ham, America’s prosciutto, country ham.

I’m a recent convert to country ham. I didn’t grow up with it, and like many who didn’t, I found it to be too salty. Over time, however, I developed a taste for it. There are few things that have as much flavor as country ham. A paper-thin slice of country ham fills the mouth more than a pound of city ham.  It is intense, but it is also incredibly satisfying.   

My desire for country ham took me to the place that is synonymous with the product: Smithfield, Va. Smithfield is to country ham what champagne is to sparkling wines. Lots of places make country ham, but only those hams that are made in Smithfield are Smithfield hams. Put another way, and I’m paraphrasing from something I read in a Junior League cookbook, all Smithfield hams are country hams but not all country hams are Smithfield hams. ...

While in Smithfield I sampled the Smithfield ham in all kinds of ways. At the Smithfield Inn, I went traditional with ham slices on sweet potato rolls. At the Smithfield Station, I went retro with ham croquettes, which were fried ham balls accompanied by an apple and raisin sauce. At the Smithfield Bakery, I went fusion with a Smithfield dim sum platter that featured ham dumplings and spring rolls.

All of those places were good, but perfection was found at a place called Darden’s Country Store located a few miles outside of town.  

The Darden family has been curing and smoking hams for almost 60 years in a smokehouse that sits across the road from their general store. Since these hams are made outside the city limits, they are not Smithfield hams. Don’t let this technicality stand in your way. Their ham is phenomenal, an opinion shared by the late Johnny Apple of the New York Times who described it as “the subtlest flavor of any I've tasted.”

I knew as soon as I tasted the Darden’s ham that I wanted to buy one to take home. Unfortunately, a whole ham ran around $100. Now, it was not that the ham was not worth it; rather it was that Darden’s did not take credit cards. I am lucky if I have enough cash on me to cover tolls and parking meters on most days, so there was no way I would have enough clams to buy a whole ham.   

I pulled together all the cash I had, which was a handful of singles that totaled about $20. I was able to buy a pound of sliced ham, a few strips of side meat and a bag of hickory nuts. If I had a few more dollars, I would have bought a ham hock and a package of their fresh country sausage.

I still wanted to buy a whole ham, and on the drive back into town I saw a sign from above…in front of the True Value Hardware Store. It proclaimed “country hams, $1.89 per pound.”  Now, living in a condo, I don’t visit a lot of hardware stores. Of course, if the hardware stores around here carried salted and cured meats, I would probably be a more frequent customer.

I went inside and picked up a ham. It wasn’t a genuine Smithfield.  It was from Ivor, which is in the next county over. It was, however, purchased with plastic and at $1.99 a pound the whole ham was had for under $30. I also picked up a bag of redskin peanuts.  You have to love a hardware store that carries everything from ham to nuts. 

I made that ham on New Year’s Day. It was a little bit of a challenge, as the preferred method for making a country ham is to boil it. The largest stock pot I had was more chicken-sized than ham-sized, which meant that I had to bake the ham in an unconventional way. The ham was placed in an oven for a few minutes of 500 degree heat followed by hours of cooling down.

The ham turned out great this way. One of the great benefits of baking as opposed to boiling a ham was the wonderful smell in my kitchen. It reminded me of a great line the curator at the Isle of Wight Museum in Smithfield said to me. I asked her if there were any complaints about the smell of producing hams. She said some people grumble about it, but other people say, “Mmmmm…smells like money.” 


Posted by Elizabeth Large at 3:05 PM | | Comments (29)


RoCK, you had yourself a REAL ham there! Many of us in Maryland have never had such thing. I don't believe in my whole life I've ever seen a REAL ham with a bone, that's not pre-cooked. I've eaten it before at friend's homes but never seen it in the stores. And, to think the hardware store had them when our grocers don't!

That's a fine looking hunk o' meat. Nice post, RoCK.

I have got to ride my bike down next spring, and get one of those hams. What could be better than country ham and a motorcycle?

Ham on sweet potato roll? I'm suddenly hungry.

Here is a link to order a genuine Smithfield ham, as well as other products.
Lissa: they also sell ham on sweet potato biscuits!
Giant Foods used to sell genuine Smithfield hams in the stores, but since they now are one step up from "Stop Shop and Save" they don't seem to offer it any more.

captcha: that artifice (what my kids probably say about me)

If you haven't already, you need to head down to Southern Maryland sometime and get stuffed ham. It's ham with the bone removed and stuffed with all sorts of greens, peppers and spices. not a country ham but definitely fine dining!

I am from the western part of Virginia, and country ham is a holiday tradition; ham biscuits might well be my favorite food of the holidays. My mom goes to The Meating Place to purchase hers. It's divine.

The genunie Smithfield hams are all produced by Smithfield Foods on the account that Smithfield Foods bought all the ham producers in the town of Smithfield. Even the country ham smoked and cured by the Dardens starts off as a fresh ham from Smithfield Foods.

As to stuffed ham, that is something that has been on my to-eat-list for a while. I know that Brickridge in Mount Airy, the restaurant that features the food of a different state each week, has offered a stuffed ham special in the past.

Mitch, I'm not familar with the Meating Place. Is it western Virginia? I spend a lot of time out that way.

RoCK, true also of genuine Vidalia onions. They must be from the town of Vidalia. Which doesn't mean there's anything wrong with other sweet onions.

That type of regionalism is huge in Italy and France. For example, no cheese can call itself parmeseano regiano unless it's from the Parma region of Italy. They've even got lunch meat that is sold "regionally" labeled.

And no bubbling wine made out side of the Champagne region of France are allowed to call their product "champagne".

E.L., Don't forget the country ham at The Smokehouse in Monteagle, TN. Their country ham bisquits are to die for. I believe the hams in middle Tennessee, espcially around McMinnville, are superior to Smithfield.

Hey, BB. Hope you're feeling better. EL

Back in the '70's there used to be a little country store in Mt. Airy (near Frederick) called Aunt Lucy's who sold real country ham. Many a time I stopped in for a country ham sandwich and a 6oz bottle of coke. They made the sandwiches in front of you on a little enamel kitchen taple. As I remember they had a mail order business selling whole hams and smoked turkeys. We bought one of each for the holidays one year. They were very good. We cooked it by the boiling method, everyone loved it. I think Aunt Lucy's closed in the early eighties.

This is well timed -- we're putting Benton's country ham on the menu in the near future

If you can't have bacon, Smithfield ham is the next best thing. Like beer, it is a sign that God loves us.

Stolen wriggler (my worm farm burglar name)

Wow, Jack Ziegler--when was the last time you could find a 6 oz. soft drink bottle? That takes me back!

Aviv jilted: Cleatus's perennial bachelor name.

Dahlink, I got my last 6 oz bottle of ice cold Coke in the '80s where I used to get my hair done. I really enjoyed it too!

Now we're talking! I hate those old wet, tasteless "city hams" most people seem to mean when they talk about ham. But country ham and biscuits (sweet potato, cheese, any kind of biscuit) - Mmmm, mmm!

If Brickridge doesn't have stuffed ham anytime soon, mckays in st mary's used to do a pretty good one. or it's not really that hard to make if you're feeling adventurous :)

The traditional Kentucky country ham, which I grew up eating, was dry-cured. It was a risky process, because any bruise or blemish in the flesh could allow the meat to spoil during curing. What is often called country ham today -- the version you can find in supermarkets -- is cured by injecting saltwater into the meat. This prevents spoilage, but the flavor is much less satisfactory.

Today, dry-cured country hams are not only scarce, but they cost the earth.

I begrudge no one their right to a delicious ham. However, my impressions of Smithfield are of a factory farm operation, producing a high quantity of low quality hams that are incomparable to what our parents may have purchased from them long ago. Has anyone read Foer's Eating Animals? Smithfield is investigated in some detail.

As a frequent reader and rare commenter to D@L, there's much I have missed in terms of comment discussions. Since E. Large has such a responsive audience, though, I have to ask: what do you think of factory farmed meat?

The hams at the Darden's store are dry cured. Here is their process

The ham I bought at the hardware store was produced by Felts. Even at $1.89 a pound, it is also labled a dry cured ham. Here is where you can buy a Felts.
Notice they are lot more expensive outside of a hardware store.

e, I think factory meat (and egg) farming is cruel, environmentally unsound and has destroyed the small family farm. In other words, it is evil.

So, I avoid factory farmed meat as much as I can. I manage this about 80% of the time. Not a great number. It has gotten harder to avoid factory farmed meat since it became trendy. This has led to factory "organic" farms, which can be just as cruel, environmentally unsound, etc., as the regular factory farms.

Nothing tastes as wonderful as a genuine Smithfield ham!!!!

Don't confuse the Smithfield corporate behemoth with the town of Smithfield, VA and surrounding area. I wouldn't at all be surprised if the Smithfield behemoth doesn't sell any country hams at all.

As a Virginian who loves his adopted home town of Baltimore, I would recommend a small producer from the next county over from mine. Calhoun's Country Hams in Culpeper. They are the ham of choice for The Inn at Little Washington among others. Well worth the money and a great drive as well. The country sausage over biscuits is pretty hard to beat.

Thanks for the tip, Brendan. I've heard that there is much good eating to be had in Culpeper! When we passed through the town on the way to a concert once, I kept thinking "what is that I hear about this town?" And, I finally remembered - Lots of good places to eat!

I was waiting for someone to mention the book "Eating Animals".
Having been a carnivore (and a voracious one at that) all of my life, I bought the book in late December 2009.
After some thought, for the first time in my 58 years, I am thinking of NOT "eating animals"!
While I love all vegetables, fruits, nuts, herbs, etc., it is hard to think of NEVER eating animals again; but, having read that book, I am looking to a whole new way of eating.
P.S. Don't read the book if you don't want to change your eating habits cause it is extremely hard not to after reading this book. Will never dis off others for continuing to eat animals, but it struck a STRONG chord with me.

Maybe it is just me, but I think that "Culpeper" is a great sounding name for a town.

Back in the '70's there used to be a little country store in Mt. Airy (near Frederick) called Aunt Lucy's who sold real country ham. Many a time I stopped in for a country ham sandwich and a 6oz bottle of coke. They made the sandwiches in front of you on a little enamel kitchen taple. As I remember they had a mail order business selling whole hams and smoked turkeys. We bought one of each for the holidays one year. They were very good. We cooked it by the boiling method, everyone loved it. I think Aunt Lucy's closed in the early eighties.

Ok, I can verify Aunt Lucy. My friend once had a case of 'country puddin scrumbly sausage' sent out to him here on the west coast. It had an inch thick layer of grease on top of the crumbly sausage in each can. We cooked potatos and onions carrots together in the sausage...

I took 1 st personal loans when I was a teenager and it supported my business a lot. But, I need the financial loan once again.

Per Aunt Lucy's, they closed in 1987. They had a business that supplied hams, "crumbly sausage" and other items. The sausage used to be supplied in cans and shipped out in cases of 6 to 12 cans. My Dad and Granddad would give the cans of sausage as Christmas presents, dating back to the 1940/50's. The recipes date back to when Lucy's parents, grandparents were slave in the MD/VA area.

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About this blog
Richard Gorelick was appointed The Baltimore Sun's restaurant critic in September 2010. Before joining the paper staff fulltime, he contributed freelance criticism and features articles about food to area and regional publications. Along the way, he dispatched for short-distance trucking companies, shilled for cultural non-profits, and assisted in cognitive neurology research – never the subject, always the control.

He takes restaurants seriously but not himself, and his favorite restaurant is the one you love, too.

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