The indecision flickered in Richard Knight’s eyes as soon as the white Ford pickup pulled into the empty used-car lot on a chilly Saturday morning this month. He was midconversation with some out-of-towners in this small western Kentucky town, where hospitality is a point of pride.
But loaded in the pickup were the last of Freddie Bryant’s 2016 hams, and if Mr. Knight didn’t quickly join the gray-haired men crowding around the back of the truck, he could lose his chance to pick out the best-looking ham for his family’s Christmas dinner.
The ham won out.
“I’m sorry, but that’s the place I’ve got to be,” he said to the visitors, trotting toward the scrum, which grabbed up all 14 hams in about 20 minutes.
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Mr. Knight, 72, like many people in these parts, has been buying his country hams for decades from three generations of Bryants, always on a single day in December at Billy Dan Crouse’s car lot.
But on this Saturday, Mr. Bryant, 78, was lying in a hospital because of complications from a recent shoulder replacement. Mr. Crouse had died in August. All the cars were gone, and a “For Rent” sign hung on the window of the garage. Filling in for their fathers were John Bryant, 44, and Christian Crouse, 43.
No one was saying it out loud, but it was understood that this day signified either the passing of the torch to the next generation or the end of a tradition.
Country hams have been a part of life in and around the Appalachians since the first Europeans settled here and brought with them Old World techniques for preserving meat through the winter. And for more than 70 years, the Bryant family’s hams have been holiday staples around here, even though they’re made in Trigg County, where there are more famous producers of country hams, large and small.
On Freddie’s watch, the Bryant hams have attracted devoted fans from all over the country, including governors of Kentucky and country-music stars like John Anderson.
Unlike city hams, which are wet-cured in a brine, country hams are dry-cured with salt. The Bryant family’s hams sit in a wooden salt box for 21 days, dry-rubbed with red and black pepper, and are then hung from ceiling hooks and smoked at a low temperature amid hickory and sassafras wood for as long as five weeks. They develop a rich red mahogany color, and then age for about a year in the unheated, uninsulated smokehouse.
Many country hams, aged only a matter of weeks, have the rubbery texture of Canadian bacon and an overwhelming, often off-putting brininess. The Bryant hams, on the other hand, are mellow, complex and just salty enough, with variations in taste and texture from batch to batch, depending on weather conditions.
“I don’t change nothing from the recipe; I just watch the weather and the temperature, and that’s that,” said Freddie Bryant, a felled mountain of a man, as he lay in a hospital bed in nearby Cadiz. “Then on Christmas, I cut up one ham, fry it and have that with red-eye gravy. It’s making me get hungry just talking about it now.”
The relationship between the Bryant and the Crouse families started in the 1940s, when Freddie’s father, also named John Bryant, brewed moonshine in the thickly wooded hills near his family’s homestead on the east side of Lake Barkley. Billy Crouse transported the illegal booze in souped-up cars to tipplers on the west side, evading government revenue agents.
Eventually, the two friends, along with a population of bootleggers gone straight, moved on to more legitimate businesses: Mr. Crouse put his automotive skills toward selling old cars in Murray, which, thanks to a 1974 article in Popular Mechanics, earned a reputation as the used-car capital of America. (Christian Crouse claimed, with some pride, that his grandfather had helped revolutionize the business with his knack for turning back odometers and not getting caught.)
Mr. Bryant turned to raising hogs and opened a small barbecue shack. He also perfected what would become his family’s recipe for country ham: a year of aging in a smokehouse that lies behind a stack of chicken coops on the family’s land in Cadiz, a logging and farming town of about 2,600. (Cadiz’s small town center features several pig statues.)
In the 1970s, the Bryant hogs all died in a fire, and the family’s barbecue shack is now a glorified tool shed behind the family home. John and then his son Freddie, who owns an excavation business, began buying hogs from a neighbor, and would put down their hams each year as soon as the first frost hit.
“We made moonshine and country hams — that was the life,” the younger John Bryant said in the region’s guitar-string twang. “And now we just make country hams.”
As the list of people who wanted a Bryant country ham by Christmas grew beyond relatives and close friends, the elder John Bryant needed a place big enough to distribute them. His old moonshining collaborator’s car lot turned out to be the perfect location.
When the two friends died, their sons Freddie and Billy Dan took over, and the annual selling of hams became the excuse for a community party. Billy Dan Crouse would buy several of the hams himself and set up a cooking station on the lot where one of his mechanics, who owned a meat-and-three restaurant in town, would fry slices of ham and serve them alongside white beans, pork chops and sausage, free to anyone who stopped by.
“It keeps us all together, all talking so you don’t lose track of people,” Christian Crouse said. “It goes back as far as I can remember. It’s just Christmas to us.”
The hams, which are inspected and stamped by the United States Department of Agriculture, weigh about 20 to 25 pounds, fetching around $120 each.
One of them made its way a few years ago to the Napa Valley, where it persuaded Stephen Barber, the executive chef at Farmstead restaurant, to reconsider the overly salty pink country hams he’d grown up eating with grape jelly and biscuits in Madisonville, Ky.
“It was sweet, nutty and had umami and a Parmesan flavor to it — it just knocked me out,” he said. “It was the first American ham that I could ever eat raw like prosciutto or serrano. It was a big revelation to me as a chef, and I was like, ‘Holy crap, this has been in my backyard my whole life!’” He is now starting to make his own country hams.
Whether Mr. Barber and other country-ham aficionados will have a chance to try a Freddie Bryant product again is unclear. This was the second consecutive year that Mr. Bryant missed the car-lot sale for health reasons, and he has already halved the number of ham he produces in recent years from about 75 in the heyday.
The gathering at Billy D Crouse’s Auto Brokers has dwindled from dozens to a handful of mostly retirees this year.
“This is what people refer to as ‘real’ country ham, the kind I’d heard about from my mom growing up but never had until I had Freddie’s,” Bill Sanders, 42, an insurance salesman, said. “There’s not many people still around that can do that stuff. I hope it’s passed on, because country ham like this has been getting rarer and rarer for years.”
The younger John Bryant, a mine manager in Lexington, said his family would continue to make country hams as long as there were Bryants in Kentucky. He has helped his father make hams since he could walk, and for the last two years, they’ve been getting help from the fourth generation of Bryants: John’s 19-year-old daughter, Anna, a student at the University of Kentucky.
And though the lot in Murray won’t sell cars anymore, Christian Crouse vowed that the property would host the sale every December as long as it remains in his family.
Freddie Bryant is confident the legacy is safe.
“My kids say, ‘When you going to quit?’” he said. “But then my son comes in, and we’ll put the hams, the green ones, down in the salt together. And then 21 days later, he’ll come back and we’ll hang out in the smokehouse and smoke them.
“So if I’m not doing it, John will get them done. I guess we’ll carry on a long while.”