The Secret History of Country Ham
A Guest Column by Tim Evans
As a guy growing up in Southern California, I knew nothing about ham.
Except, of course, that in its natural state, ham was a bland, square, sliced meat product that came wrapped in various forms of plastic. Later, I discovered that there was a damp, soggy, sweet-flavored version of ham that could be found in cans. So I knew ham existed. But I had never heard of any distinctions beyond brand names.
Then I married the host of this blog, and discovered the sublime and mysterious substance called “Country Ham.”
Country Hams are not just hams. They’re not Western Hams. They’re not canned, spiral-cut, boned, rolled, or “ready-to-eat” hams. They are a specific and unique American food tradition that became endangered in the mid-20th Century… and some of its last specimens can be found in small farms, local grocery stores and Virginia basements.
Like the basement of my father-in-law.
|Country hams cure in the basement of Winston Lutz, 2000.|
Winston Lutz was born on the family farm in the Shenandoah Valley, and though he’s been “off” the farm since he left for college and med school, he likes to preserve some country hams in the basement, using the secret recipe of his Uncle Elwood.
Winston’s country hams are nothing like the meat product I knew growing up. Salty, hard, dry, chewy… and so well-preserved that some people soak them in water for days before consuming them. Country Ham is an acquired taste, but once acquired – nothing else will satisfy your pork cravings.
Winston Lutz’s hams are the last of a long line of disappearing traditional American pork products. Rather than talk about the taste, quality and preparation of country ham, though, I’ll delve into a brief, little-known history – a secret history – of country ham.
Country ham is at least 4,000 years old. Not the ones in Winston’s basement, of course – though they may look like it. But the concept of country ham has been part of Western Civilization for more than four millennia. Pigs were first domesticated in the Middle East over 7,000 years ago. But recently, geneticists applied DNA studies to the concept of country ham. It turns out that those Sumerian/Babylonian pigs migrated westward over a few millennium to wind up in Europe… but the Europeans began to interbreed them with the fierce, monstrous wild boars that plagued the forests of Germany and France. From this breeding project (the mind reels trying to imagine the first time some hungry Goth tried to bring the two sub-species together) came the first European pigs, around 2000 BC.
Pigs are the perfect farm animal. At least to this city-bred guy… and I suspect to Neolithic farmers as well. You don’t need to do anything with them… you don’t even need to FEED them! You just toss a couple of baby pigs into the forest, leave ‘em for 5 months, then go get ‘em and eat ‘em. Pigs fend for themselves. Even in mid-20th-Century Appalachia, mountain farmers would mark the ears of the piglets and let ‘em run off into the woods, then round them up in the Fall, with absolutely no money spent on care, feeding, tending. That’s my kind of farm work.
You may need to throw a swineherd into the mix – just to keep the locals or the wolves from eating the piglets. Neolithic farmers apparently discovered that youngest sons are perfect for this since, like the pigs, they’re cheap and somewhat disposable. Hence, four millennia of folktales involving swineherds and youngest sons – from The Odyssey to the Welsh Mabinogi to the Disney version The Black Cauldron.
The first WRITTEN accounts of ham were circa 200 BC, when the expanding Roman Republic discovered that those smelly barbarians to the north and west were taking pig flesh, salting it, and letting it sit around for a year or two. The Romans became enthusiastic fans, not only eating it and writing about it, but commemorating the delightfully salty flavor in ham-shaped COINS. How come America doesn’t do that? Why isn’t there a giant, freshly-sliced Smithfield ham on the back of the Virginia Quarter? Just asking…
Coming up in the next post... how The Emperor's Pigs Came to America... and how they wound up in the basement.