Book Review: Steve Coomes Highlights Country Ham’s History & Transitions
Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt, & Smoke
by Steve Coomes
Charleston: American Palate/The History Press, 2014
Southern Foodways Alliance Director John T. Edge, when asked recently what he though the classic Southern food was, responded simply, “Country ham.” It is about that classic, perhaps the classic, Southern food that Kentucky food writer Steve Coomes explores in his book Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt, & Smoke.
It is perhaps a little counter-intuitive that such a Southern classic would originate, its production actually limited to, the upper South states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, and even questionably Southern Missouri. Like many classic Southern foods, country ham arose out of food thrift necessity on hardscrabble farms. I remember hams hanging in my grandparents smokehouse in Clay County, Kentucky as a boy. There was a time that curing ham was simply something that households did, with little market for the sale of hams.
Curing hams was, and still ought to be, a nearly year long process. The raw hams are rubbed down with salt, and often a mixture of brown sugar and a variation of spices based on the preferences of the curer. The hams are air cured in a smokehouse, which is why the particularly seasonal climate of the Upper South is so vital: cold, but not too cold in the winter, hot, but not too hot in the summer. As it happens, this is essentially the same climate in such European ham curing centers as Italy (prosciutto) and Spain (Serrano).
Coomes records the history, curing process, celebration, and changing landscape of American country ham. He follows the trail of local ham festivals in Lebanon and Cadiz, Kentucky, with their ham curing competitions, valuable in promoting and preserving amateur curing. The apotheosis of these competitions is the Kentucky State Fair. The blue ribbon country ham is escorted by Miss Kentucky into a room full of deep-pocketed bidders who are liable to drive the price for the ham to well above one million dollars, with proceeds going to charity.
The heart of the book, however, are the features by Coomes on “Masters of the Craft,” commercial ham curers from across the country ham belt. From Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams in Madisonville, Tennessee to Father’s Country Hams in Breman, Kentucky to The Hamery in Murfreesboro, and many in between, Coomes traces the history of each curer, the challenges they face in a changing market, and their vision for country ham’s future.
A couple of curers represent the Old Way and the New Way of curing Southern country ham. It’s impossible to discuss country ham without bringing up Nancy Newsom and her Col. Bill Newsom’s Aged Kentucky Country Ham in Princeton, Kentucky. Since being “discovered” by revered food writer James Beard, Col. Newsom’s has been the poster pig for country ham. Modern champions of Newsom’s hams include Louisville’s celebrity Chef Edward Lee who features the pork in his restaurants.
Nancy Newsom, The Ham Lady, still cures hams the Right Way, rejecting the curing nitrates and nitrites that makes life easier in a USDA regulated world. Her hams have received international acclaim, honored at the World Congress of Ham in Spain, and one now on display at Spain’s Museo del Jamón. Newsom’s vibrant personality comes through in everything I’ve read about her. She must be a delight to interview.
Representing a transition in ham curing is Woodlands Pork in Black Oak Holler, West Virginia. A partnership of curer, and former chef, Jay Denham, Chuck Talbott, and hog geneticist Nick Heckett, Woodlands seeks to utilize European methods in an American setting. Denham spent months in Europe apprenticing with top ham curers, learning their approaches and secrets. In it’s own vertical production process, their own hogs are grazed in Appalachian forests, which they believe is the world’s best hog feeding ground, then taken to Kentucky for slaughter and curing. Rejecting the American tradition of smoking the meat, which Europeans do not do, Denham is intent on producing a “Mountain Ham” that yields prosciutto on par with the Italians. Their hams sell for around $350, triple what many of the better country ham producers can charge, but still only a third of European ham prices.
Coomes is an enthusiastic advocate of the trend toward using American country ham for charcuterie over the traditional Southern preparation technique of frying and serving with redeye gravy. Charcuterie, which we are familiar with through the presentation of prosciutto, is the practice of serving cured hams uncooked and sliced paper thin. Eating such cured hams uncooked is perfectly safe, and is increasingly embraced as the preferred way of eating it. Chefs across the South, and the entire U.S., are using traditionally cured American hams in this sophisticated manner, which must be a growing market for ham curers if the craft is to survive.
Steve Coomes has given us a fine primer on the American Country Ham. Curing hams is a four hundred year-old heritage that reaches back to the earliest arrival of the European colonists in America. It’s a heritage that must find new markets while regaining proper appreciation of its quality and value if it is to survive. Country Ham is a valuable tool in that process.