My early childhood years were spent in a small farmhouse in rural Clark County, and our meals were "locally grown" long before it was trendy.
My mother raised a garden and canned vegetables, and cooked every meal from scratch. We ate local pork and free-range chickens and their eggs. Dad worked for Marsh Dairy and brought home fresh milk and ice cream treats, and he raised hogs.
In winter, Dad and neighbors killed hogs, and the green hams and shoulders were rubbed with salt and hung to cure in the backyard smokehouse. The meat was smoked in the spring and hung for another six to nine months. If it was left for a year, we had a mighty fine ham, and if one was left to hang for two years, it was the best of all.
We had no clue that our humble hams would one day be considered a Southern delicacy and a hot ticket for upscale restaurants.
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The old-fashioned way of doing things has garnered a new appreciation.
Steve Coomes of Goshen, who is the author of Country Ham, A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke (The History Press, $19.99), said "one of the most intriguing things I found in researching this book is how highly regarded country ham is outside the South. "The sense that what's old is new is pervading so much of our food culture in the U.S. because we're trying to get back to simply and naturally produced foods. Ham curing takes time and patience. It's the slowest of slow foods. They're edible after six or seven months of curing, but they're not really flavorful, nor do they have a good texture, until they're at least nine months old. The longer they age, the more that flavor intensifies as the ham's internal moisture evaporates. Some two-plus-year-old hams I had during my research were just extraordinary," Coomes said.
"Nancy Newsom, ham maker at Col. Bill Newsom's Aged Kentucky Country Hams in Princeton said it best: 'Chefs get this. They understand our passion for what we do and the flavor and character that comes from careful curing and aging.' And thusly chefs are driving this overarching trend toward slow foods — or should we say, old foods? Southern food is absolutely red hot in America's restaurants — has been since the reemergence of Low Country and Cajun foods in the 1980s, and country ham has become a part of it," Coomes said.
Coomes takes readers on a journey from the first hog to arrive on American soil to interviews with ham craftmasters and how to cook a ham.
Coomes includes stories from Newsom, Bill Robertson Jr. (Finchville Farms in Finchville); Ronnie and Beth Drennan (Broadbent's B&B Foods in Kuttawa); Charles Gatton Jr. (Father's Country Hams in Bremen); Brian Harper (Harper's in Clinton); June and Leslie Scott (Scott Hams in Greenville); and ham makers in Virginia and Tennessee.
Country ham's value skyrocketed when many of the ham makers began to realize that a significant portion of their companies' future sales rested in the hands of chefs who view country ham on par with Europe's finest cured flanks. Chefs who appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into making country ham have brought it to the forefront of fine dining.