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Monday, April 7, 2014

Virginia Smoked Ham - "A la Old Dominion"

P.D. Gwaltney Jr. in 1902 with the world's oldest country ham.
Photo courtesy of the Isle of Wight County Museum.
In a 1688 letter to the Royal Society of London, John Clayton declared that Virginia pork is "as good as any Westphalia (considered the finest hams in Europe at the time), certainly far exceeding our English [pork]." Clayton went on to explain that the secret of this superlative flavor was not due to just the pigs' unique diet but also the unique Virginia curing and smoking process of salting, smoking, and aging the meat.

Virginia smoked ham is a delicacy famous the world over. It has been rightly observed that “No self-respecting Southern pig can imagine a higher distinction than becoming, in due course, a Virginia ham – spicy as a woman’s tongue, sweet as her kiss, as tender as her love.” Even in early colonial times tons of Virginia hams were exported all over the world in order to meet demand. First in Virginia, then spreading throughout the world and other colonies, pork preserved by smoking it in the Virginia manner was uniquely Virginian as well as uniquely American.

An 1841 Pennsylvania newspaper writer wrote "smack their lips as heartily as I do over a good old Virginia ham, that fairly melts in your mouth". A writer for the Daily Dispatch of Richmond, Virginia wrote in 1858 "A delicious Virginia ham on its bed of greens, engirdled by its rim of eggs (a la Old Dominion), and a slice of chicken or turkey, might do very well for a plain country gentleman's dinner for two or three times a week, and these could be had for the asking on every Virginia farm."

No wonder George W. Bagby, with his tongue in his cheek, wrote in his famous 1877 essay The Old Virginia Gentleman “a Virginian could not be a Virginian without bacon and greens” which struck an amusing note of truth in me the first time I read it and thought of the many meals of smoked pork, greens and deviled eggs prepared for my family by my Mother when I was growing up in central Virginia.

An eyewitness account of how colonial Virginians preserved pork was recorded by Nicholas Cresswell in The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell. Nicholas Cresswell (1751-1804), of Derbyshire, England, came to America hoping to acquire land and settle permanently, but personal difficulties, the uncertain state of affairs, and the Revolutionary War, caused him to return to England. His journal was written from rough notes taken during his trip to America between the years 1774-1777. While traveling, he visited or lived in Barbados, Maryland, Virginia, western Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Philadelphia, and New York. He often includes lengthy observations on the towns he visited, frontier techniques and customs, and the social customs of both Indians and Europeans. His entry about Virginia for Tuesday July 26, 1774 is as follows:

"The bacon cured here is not to be equaled in any part of the world, their hams in particular. They first rub them over with brown sugar and let them lie all night. This extracts the watery particles. They let them lie in salt for 10 days or a fortnight. Some rub them with hickory ashes instead of saltpeter, it makes them red as saltpeter and gives them a pleasant taste.
Then they are hung up in the smoke-house and a slow smoky fire kept under them for three or four weeks, nothing but hickory wood is burnt in these smoke-houses. This gives them an agreeable flavor, far preferable to the Westphalia hams, not only that, but it prevents them from going rancid and will preserve them for several years by giving them a fresh smoking now and then."

In 1902, a smoked ham was overlooked and hung in one of P. D. Gwaltney Jr.'s packing houses for 20 years. Advertised as the world’s oldest Smithfield ham, Gwaltney fashioned a brass collar for the ham and took it to shows and expos to exhibit the preservative powers of his smoking method. The ham has also been featured in Ripley’s “Believe It Or Not” in 1929, 1932 and 2003. Today, the ham resides in the Isle of Wight Museum and, we are told, it is still edible.

 During your summer travels, take the image of P.D. Gwaltney Jr. and his ham with you and document a great vacation moment with a photo of the image! Post your photo on the Isle of Wight County Museum and Historic Sites Facebook site or email it to them at jwilliams@isleofwightus.net. The contest runs through Sept. 4, and we’ll announce the winner on Sept. 10. All entrants will be entered into a random drawing for a prize. Whatever your plans are – the beach, the mountains, the south of France or a staycation in your own backyard – be sure to pack the world’s oldest ham. He is ready for an adventure! The link to the "Pan Ham" site is http://www.historicisleofwight.com/pan-ham.html.

So, after all that you still want to know how to prepare a smoked Virginia ham? My Dad used to raise his own hogs, slaughter them, butcher them, and cure and smoke the meat. Here is how my parents have prepared smoked ham for as long as I can remember.

Step 1 - Soak the ham in cool water for about 36 hours changing the water about every 4 hours. This is to remove excess salt. You will need a large food safe bucket in a cool area below 40 degrees.

Step 2 - Remove the ham from the water and rinse it. Brush or trim off any parts that you don't want to eat. Sometimes there is discoloration or mold on the outside that doesn't look appetizing. Mold is a common and natural occurrence on aged hams much like aged cheeses. It signifies proper curing and does not affect the taste or quality.

Step 3 - Slowly simmer the ham in enough water to cover it until it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees. My Dad used to boil his in a pot sitting on the wood stove he keeps in the basement. You will have to add water throughout the cook to keep the ham submerged.

Step 4 - Remove the skin and excess fat from the outside of the ham. Rub the ham liberally with brown sugar and black pepper.

Step 5 - Bake the ham in a 400 degree oven until the brown sugar melts and forms a glaze. It will take no longer than about 15 minutes.

Step 6 - Remove the ham from the oven and let rest for 30 minutes and then enjoy. My parents used to let the ham cool and they served it chilled with hot biscuits. So tasty!

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