Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Secret History of Country Ham, Part Two

Tim Evans-- writer, tv producer, jackleg historian, and my husband-- wraps up his two-part series on The Secret History of Ham today.  And just in case you missed the original report, be sure to check out Part One as well.

The Secret History of Country Ham, Part Two
By Tim Evans

Some food writers claim that the Roman version of ham – the ham so prized by Roman emperors -- is identical to the Spanish Seranno and Iberico hams of today… the most expensive and highly prized in the world.  (Of course, those food writers tend to be Spanish.)

If this is so, then the same breed of Roman Empire Pig made its way to the New World in 1540 with Hernando DeSoto, the Spanish Conquistador.  DeSoto brought with him 13 Spanish pigs to feed his troops… and the pig herd grew rapidly as DeSoto’s explorers traveled from Florida to Georgia to the Appalachians and Tennessee.  Along the way, DeSoto’s swineherds left behind colonies of pigs to run wild… and feed future expeditions.  Many historians and archaeo-zoologists trace the Southern Razorback Hogs directly to DeSotos’s Conquistadors.  There are no existing accounts of DeSoto’s swineherds.  Sadly.

It’s intriguing that De Soto left pigs behind in EXACTLY the same region that became famous for Country Ham… but that may be coincidence.  Most food historians think the source of American domestic pigs came from Jamestown

European pigs arrived in the first English-speaking colony with Captain John Smith in 1607 – six decades after DeSoto’s piglets were left to run wild.  The Jamestown Pigs soon became so plentiful that the colonists took most of them to an island in the middle of the James River and just left them.  They bred so quickly and so plentifully that “Hog Island” became a communal larder – and colonists and Native Americans alike could just paddle over and grab themselves a fresh pig whenever they wanted.

The Jamestown pigs not only gave the colonists fresh pork… but the salty, dense, incredible substance called Country Ham.  The English colonists had a long history of curing and preserving meat.  One pig and a whole lot of salt could preserve good protein through many colonial “starving times.”

And that brings us back to “Country Ham.”  The food that today is called “Country Ham” was just “Ham” until the invention of refrigeration in the early 20th Century.
A cured country ham ready to be boiled, April 2010.

In fact, there is no written reference to “Country Ham” until 1944.  Country ham wasn’t new in 1944 – the other versions of ham were.  So you had to come up with a name for the thing everyone used to call “just ham.”

By the early 20th Century, technology allowed Americans to inject fresh pork with salt, instead of covering it with salt and letting it hang in the basement.  You could put pork in cans, you could freeze it, you could do all sorts of interesting and tasty things with it… and none of them involved two years immersed in salt.  So the substance I always THOUGHT was ham was “wet-cured” pork shoulder… injected or immersed in brine AFTER they’ve been cooked.  Most of the things called “ham” in the supermarket are fully-cooked and salty versions of pork… bland squares of sliced protein that would never last over a Jamestown winter… or sit in a basement in the Shenandoah Valley for a year or two  before it was deemed ready to eat.
Country Ham is ham the way it should be.  The way our Neolithic forebears liked it… the way the Jamestown colonists tasted it when their very survival was at stake.  In each crusty bite of the dense, salt-laden, molar-cracking swineflesh lies the history of western civilization.

So if, like me, you are familiar only with the damp, honey-flavored, paper-thin globs of pinkness passing as ham at your supermarket, you need to taste the real thing.  If you can’t marry into a ham-curing family (and so few are that lucky, nowadays), find yourself a real southern-style grocery store or contact folks with an international reputation like Turner Hams of Fulks Run, VA and get yourself some of the real stuff.  You owe it to your taste buds.  And to your Neolithic ancestors.

Especially the ones who were swineherds.

Ed. Note:  The folks at Turner Hams are cousins of mine (of a sort).  If you're in the neighborhood, be sure to pick up a ham roll from their refrigerated section.  It's the best fast-food in the world!