My mom’s parents, Mama Gus and Papa Evans, lived in Chesterfield, an unincorporated community in rural west Tennessee, about eight miles from the nearest town of Lexington. Their farm was on rich, dark, river-bottom land, and just about anything would prosper there. Three miles west, toward Lexington, Mama Gus’s ancestral home of Rock Hill was pretty much what the name implied.
At the end of a one-lane, chert road lived her brother, General Miles McPeake, a hog farmer, known to me as Uncle Miles. Oh, and before you go looking up the military record of General Miles McPeake — he never served. That was just his name.
Geologically, west Tennessee has nothing to do with Appalachia. But culturally, it’s like the 285 miles between Rock Hill and Rocky Top don’t even exist. Pigs are a good choice for such environs because they can and will eat just about anything. (I once saw a hog devour a past-its-prime Vidalia onion like a dog knocking back a gumdrop.)
Pigs don’t need much space, so they have no problem with terrain like Rock Hill. In fact, a properly placed pigpen can even benefit from a steep grade, directing waste away from the porkers, often toward a vegetable garden.
Every autumn, Uncle Miles would give a half-dozen or so hams to Mama Gus and Papa for curing. I will always remember the way the ham house smelled. It was a dark, warm aroma, deep and rich, weighing down the lungs with its greasy goodness.
Even as a wee lad, I understood the distressing relationship between piggies and pork products. I knew that “hog-killing weather” was the term for that time in autumn when it’s cool enough so the large quantity of raw meat doesn’t immediately start to spoil, but not so cold that it freezes. It was no figurative or quaint turn of phrase up on Rock Hill.
The Doctor of Hams
As it turns out, there is a lot to know about hamcraft beyond the proper time to send hefty oinkers to Hog Heaven. Dr. Gregg Rentfrow knows it all, and he has made a video to share it.
Dr. Rentfrow is with the Animal and Food Sciences department at the University of Kentucky, but he explains ham-making with a good-old-boy’s ease, requiring no notes to show you around the hind leg of a pig, which is the literal raw material for a ham.
Interestingly, while a country ham gets its characteristic flavor and texture from aging, the fresher the uncured or “green” ham, the better the chances for a top-notch finished product. The average ham these days runs around 25 pounds, and is appreciably lower in fat than the pork to which our ancestors were accustomed. Many an enthusiast would add that they are shorter on flavor, as well.
After trimming up the ham to remove any loose fat or meat, the cure is applied. “Sugar cure” is a term that usually comes to mind, but it is something of a misnomer. Papa always referred to his hams as “salt cured,” and indeed, even in a sugar cure, salt makes up 80 percent of the mixture. Along with black pepper and some other seasonings, the sugar is just for flavor. If the sugar-to-salt ratio rises above 50 percent, a rancid ham is in the offing.
Introducing the Ham Veterans
At this point in his already excellent presentation, things are, to use chef Emeril Lagasse’s foodie term, “kicked up a notch,” as Dr. Rentfrow is joined by two young women introduced only as “veterans of 4-H country ham projects.”
Also at this point, the video’s Comments section goes hog wild:
“Look at those beautiful country girls,” comments YouTuber Leon Corriveau, “4H is a well kept secret for meeting wife material.”
Another commenter, going by Jbj27406, is more economical, but onboard with the sentiment: “Nice job. Cute girls. Beautiful hams.”
The last word goes to commenter Bill Smith, who just says, “Yowsuh!”
Oblivious to the uproar, Dr. Renfrow and the 4-H girls proceed. He points out that the raw hams are resting atop plain, unwaxed butcher paper, and that’s the way we want it. A fresh ham is up to 75 percent water. The curing process will lower that to around 50 percent, but only if the water can escape into the air or drip to the floor.
To underscore the ruinous power of improper wrapping materials, my mom recalled with horror the time the Lexington Farmers’ Co-Op sold a bunch of supposedly advanced, plasticized ham wrappers, causing every prospective country ham in Henderson County to spoil. An angry mob descended on the Co-Op, but the manager swore he had been duped just like everybody else. He had never been a party to any chicanery before, so the mob took him at his word. The putrescent hams were buried in a common grave.
A healthy ham begins with a well-cured hock, or the small end of the ham. Apparently it is common for novices and half-steppers to get this part wrong, and it is easy to see why.
The Hock and the Sock
For most of the ham, the cure is rubbed onto and into the surface of the skin and the exposed meat. At the hock, however, the skin is separated from the meat and a solid couple of handfuls of cure are packed into the resulting cavity. If a ham spoils, Dr. Rentfrow cautions, it is likely because insufficient cure was instilled in the hock.
With the cure applied, the ham is essentially gift-wrapped in butcher paper. To hold the paper in place, a ham sock is applied. Looking like the world’s least alluring fishnet stocking, the sock’s toe goes at the hock end of the ham, with the opening secured at the large end.
A final massage is given to the ham, smoothing the skin and securing the butcher paper against it. It is then ready to repose in the barn or ham house, where it will absorb salt from the cure and lose about a gallon and a half of water. A rule of thumb is two days of curing per pound of ham, so 60 days is a good average.
In spring, while the weather is still cool, the ham is prepared for the arduous-sounding Summer Sweat. The ham’s original sock and paper are removed, it is cleaned, then given a new sock, but no paper wrapper this time.
This would be the time for a ham to be smoked, if desired. Kentucky hams are cold-smoked, at less than 105 degrees, usually for 12 to 24 hours. The heavy lifting behind it, the ham now goes back to the ham house for months, where, Dr. Rentfrow assures, enzymes break down the fats and proteins, “giving the ham its characteristic flavor and aroma.”
For generations, the country ham was a delicacy paid for at the dinner table with hours of dedication and elbow grease, feeding and butchering hogs, then preparing the meat with exacting care.
Today, cash will do, and with what we now know about the process, it’s not surprising that even a commercially-produced country ham is not cheap. A 15-17 pound Smithfield “Uncooked Country Ham in a Cloth Sack” sells for 140 USD, says their website. At about nine dollars a pound, that’s three times the price of sliced grocery store “deli” ham.
“The traditional handcrafting process has never changed,” the Smithfields promise, and it results in “a superior lean ham, rich in color and robust in flavor. The finest in the world!”
But — oops, sorry — if you are craving this apex of porcine ambition, the good folks at the Smithfield Marketplace have some bad news. These 13-16 pound, 200 dollar beauties are “Out of Stock.”