The Wonders of Ham
He wasn't exaggerating. In the decade since I tackled Uncle Kent's ham, I've cooked long-cured hams bought from Southern truck stops, eaten quick-cured smoked hams from Russian butchers, and met with other ham lovers to savor contraband jamón ibérico from Spain (now imported legally, thank heavens). I've sent countless honey-baked spiral hams to friends who are mourning, birthing, or undergoing an IRS audit. I've compared the flavors and textures of uncooked country hams from Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, and I've walked through aging rooms where the wood beams are slicked with centuries' worth of ham fat.
Until recently, though, I had never been to Smithfield, Virginia, or Parma, Italy—arguably two of the most important capitals of cured pork in the world—to eat ham. So, this past fall, I made pilgrimages to those places, each within a week of the other, to understand the glories and nuances of the world's greatest hams.
Almost everyone I met in Smithfield, a town of 7,000 people on the James River with a picture-perfect main street, had something to do with ham. On a Friday night, the bar at Smithfield Station, one of two restaurants downtown, was crowded with employees from Smithfield Foods, the largest pork processor in the world, drinking beer and eating ham biscuits. At a nearby table, Henrietta Gwaltney, the great-granddaughter of the legendary Smithfield ham producer P. D. Gwaltney (see Man's Best Friend), was dining with her two grown children.
Smithfield is where American ham began and where its evolution has played out for the past four centuries. Jamestown, site of the earliest English colony in North America, is just a few miles upriver; the settlers who brought pigs to the New World started confining hogs on a nearby island, called Hog Island, to raise them for ham, and in 1779 a sea captain named Mallory Todd started to ship hams from Smithfield to the British West Indies. The Virginia trade eventually spread to England, where Queen Victoria placed a standing order for six a week.
Smithfield had all the right conditions for ham making. It had the hogs: a flavorful, fatty razorback variety. It had cheap feed: peanuts, which grew in abundance and gave the hogs a uniquely nutty flavor. It had access to the sea (for salt) and to the James River, which allowed for easy transport. And it had the perfect climate: hot during the day and cool at night, with the four seasons necessary for hams to undergo a proper curing.
Smithfield also had some savvy marketers, who starting promoting local hams in the early 1900s. In the 1930s, many of the tourists flocking to visit the newly restored colonial Williamsburg settlement nearby were going home with Smithfield hams. Immigrants looking for hams like the ones from their homelands started buying them, too; Chinese-Americans, for instance, found them to be a fine-tasting substitute for their smoky Yunnan and Jinhua hams. Smithfield hams and, by extension, Virginia hams became foods with a coveted pedigree.
In the 1930s and '40s, ham production, and ham itself, started to change. With the advent of refrigeration, temperature-controlled aging rooms could replicate the changing of the seasons, so country hams could be produced year-round. More important, refrigeration allowed for the production of lightly cured "city" hams, which were injected with brine to speed up the curing process and shipped in refrigerated railcars. Many Americans fell in love with the sweet flavor of city hams, and producers churned them out in great numbers. Smithfield, by then the pork capital of the country, boomed. Over time, a single company—now called Smithfield Foods—became the principal producer in town. Even though the company now processes some 20 million hams a year, only 45,000 are the dry-cured, hickory-smoked Genuine Smithfield hams, which hang for at least six months in a facility I toured with Larry Santure, the company's senior business manager for dry-cured meats. "It's all still done by hand," he said, as we passed the three-story-high, smoke-charred closets where hams were dangling. "The only thing that's changed is that years ago there was a mule team that pulled pallets of ham to the second floor."