The website Rare describes itself as “an online destination that covers the now, the weird, and the barely believable oddities that peak (sic) American curiosity.” Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that on July 18th of this year, their food and drink section’s Silke Jasso declared: “The World’s Oldest Edible Ham Is a 116-Year-Old National Treasure.”
But I could swear that as a lad of 11 or so, I had viewed the world’s oldest edible ham with my own eyes, but I remembered it at Stan’s Restaurant, Country Store and Antique Center in Columbia, Tennessee.
Upon reflection, it’s possible that the Stan’s specimen was simply a ham of a certain age, say, 60 or so.
In any case, I definitely recall seeing something hanging on Stan’s country ham display that looked more like a semi-petrified tree limb than any portion of Disney’s Three Pigs, Porky Pig or Arnold Ziffel.
About That Ham…
Barbecue, fried chicken, pecan pie, fried green tomatoes, chicken-n-dumplings, hush puppies and other staples are taken seriously in the South, and disputes over recipes, methodologies and even vocabulary have driven more than one family reunion or church social to violence, sending flatware a-flying and non-combatants diving under picnic tables for cover.
I will always remember the way Mama Gus and Papa’s ham house smelled. It was a dark, warm aroma, deep and rich, weighing down the lungs with its greasy goodness.
Papa’s hams loom large in family legend. In a tale that almost certainly ballooned in its particulars over the years, one of them even enabled my mom to successfully complete grad school.
The Ham in Higher Education
Mom had been putting off three required units in math until her very last semester, having aced anatomy, physiology, kinesiology — pretty much anything involving actual things happening to or within actual people. But she saw math as abstract and therefore pointless.
All three courses were to be under the tutelage of Nathaniel Burrow-Swett Amory IV (name approximate), a confirmed bachelor from New England. He pursued a job and/or a sweetheart to The Athens of the South, and both evaporated in the early days of the depression.
As of 1955, Nate had become almost supernaturally dissatisfied with his career at Peabody, his romantic bereftitude, with Nashville and pretty much everything else in life. His classes were notoriously impossible to pass, and he himself was understood to be ornery at best, if not downright cruel.
My mom rarely had trouble charming her instructors at Peabody. Professor Amory, however, was immune to any wiles some slip of a country girl might bring to bear upon him, and Mom was beginning to despair of her chances for graduation.
Somehow, a couple of weeks before Easter break, Mom mentioned the subject of country ham within the hearing of Professor Amory who, with uncharacteristic vigor, pronounced himself a fan of the delicacy. Country ham was, he raved, the only cultural phenomenon in the South to merit his utter, undying adoration.
Within days, the good professor received, in Mama Gus’s impeccable handwriting, a letter inviting him to spend Easter weekend with them on the farm. The guest bedroom was prepared and waiting, they assured, as was an unending wealth of country ham.
I know that Papa and Mama Gus had converted to indoor plumbing while Mom was away at school, but I’m not sure exactly when that happened. Still, even if Professor Amory had to use the privy and draw his shaving water from the well during his visit, I doubt he complained. He was — forgive me — in Hog Heaven.
As Easter dusk settled, Mom was feeling a lot better about her chances for graduation. Professor Amory, too, was enjoying an improved outlook on life. Along with the customary invitation to “come see us when you can,” he was returning to Nashville with a 22-pound, salt-cured beauty that was, he rhapsodized, the rival of any country ham in Tennessee.
True to any understandings expressed or implied, Mom survived her gauntlet of math exams and received her masters degree from Peabody. Soon Miss Peggy Jean Evans of Chesterfield, Tennessee, had a teaching gig lined up at Bethel College, under the auspices of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in McKenzie, Tennessee, about an hour from home.
In her first year as a professional educator, Mom suggested that Bethel College defy church school tradition and add dance classes to their curriculum.
Rural Appalachian culture came into play. As opinions on the matter rolled in there was fear that the word itself — DANCE — would leap out at critics and torpedo the whole deal.
Then John David Hall, a final-year Bachelor of Divinity scholar, set out for the library, grabbing every thesaurus off the reference shelves.
I picture him poring over endless pages of hoary tomes through a dark and stormy night, but he probably found what he was looking for in the first five minutes. Emerging from his research, he made the suggestion: Replace the word dance with the term rhythmic games.
The powers that be accepted the suggestion, and rhythmic games came to Bethel. The dance program threw off its protective moniker a couple of years later, John and Peggy dated and married, and within a few years, your humble narrator became a presence at Bethel College.
I always loved the campus, the instructors, and especially the students, but except for the ones who got paid to babysit me, I am pretty sure everybody there always dreaded seeing me coming.
I was something of a ham.