A chapter on Virginia ham from ‘Norton Wine: Walking Off To Look For America’, set for publication in June, 2016.
When in the advance planning-stages of this trip—which took about twenty minutes including bathroom breaks—I determined to write about some Virginia food traditions that grew up alongside Norton wine.
Even so, the only Virginny edible that came to mind was ham.
Not just any ham, of course. Certainly not that canned, runny slab of grocery store ick the color of a Walking Dead extra and smelling like bleached blood—but a real, old-school, smoked, salted, cured, hung in the shed until it’s moldy and borderline funky Virginia ham, made the right way, like they used to do before the USDA invented food inspectors.
A ‘country ham’ is a hunk of hog hindquarter cured in salt for one to three months and aged while hanging up; smoking is optional. But, as in wine appellation laws, the Department of Agriculture policy book calls out Virginia ham specifically (on page 63) stating, ‘Any label representation that expresses or implies a particular geographical origin of the product shall not be used except when such representation is: 1. A truthful representation of geographical origin, e.g., —Virginia Ham“ for a ham produced in the State of Virginia’.
But—again like wine appellation laws—the legal ability to call your product ‘Burgundy’ is a far cry from being able to call your product Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, and if you listen to their company line, the Romanée-Conti of Virginia ham is Smithfield.
And there was a time in which they were probably correct; so, whilst walking off to look for American ne plus ultras in Norton country, I figured the town of Smithfield, in the Hampton Roads region of southeast Virginia, was my ground-zero.
At one time, it might have been. The first recorded instance of the export and sale of ‘Smithfield hams’ appears on a receipt from Bermuda-born Mallory Todd in 1779, and he is widely (as wide as these things get, anyway) considered to be the ‘Father of Smithfield Hams’. It wasn’t for his ability to slaughter, salt, smoke and scrag, but for his marketing acumen. He was a ship’s captain who exported hams from his hometown; The Mallory Todd House, built in 1753, still stands at 22 Main Street in downtown Smithfield.
The ham bar was raised in 1926 when the regulations meant to ensure a unique and exemplary product were first passed by the Virginia General Assembly. The statute guaranteed that ‘Genuine Smithfield hams [are those] cut from the carcasses of peanut-fed hogs, raised in the peanut-belt of the Commonwealth of Virginia or the State of North Carolina, and which are cured, treated, smoked, and processed in the town of Smithfield, in the Commonwealth of Virginia.’
The diet of hogs is a critical factor in the flavor and the texture of their flesh; Jamón Ibérico de Bellota comes from pigs raised on acorns, while ham from Heather Ridge farm in the Hudson Valley boasts that their pigs enjoy a diet rich in fruit and nut trees. There’s a story, perhaps apocryphal, about a Virginia hog farmer who fed his stock entirely on baby formula he obtained from a nearby manufacturing plant and wound up with pork so tender that his meat packers began to reject it because it fell apart while raw.
Peanuts, like acorns and Similac, are high in polyunsaturated fat, and Allen Harper, who teaches the science of pig-raising at Virginia Tech, explains that pigs fed lot of polyunsaturated fats tend to produce more of the same. This forms double bonds whose structure is softer than single bonds, making for creamier fat. So it would be reasonable to assume that the peanut diet required by the 1926 statute was instrumental in putting the ‘sooie’ the sui generis of Smithfield Hams, at least in the beginning.
But in 1966, quintessential Virginia cured ham suffered a relapse as the dietary requirement was dropped. A few techniques were refined, such a six-month minimum salting time, but the ‘peanut belt’ stipulation was removed, meaning that the quality of the raw cuts (which go by the Seussian name ‘green pork’) could expand their point of origin.
Purists argue that if you tear out the foundation of an icon—the raw material, literally—the whole structure is compromised. If the only thing ‘Smithfield’ about a Smithfield ham is the processing location, and the pork can come from anywhere and be raised under any conditions, the final ham will be a distinctly inferior product.
Although I will not argue that logic, the fact is that this particular area of Virginia, right on the James River and less than ten miles from the Atlantic ocean, has a unique terroir—a terroir not of soil and climate, as wine people are used to discussing, but of atmosphere and climate. As the briny sea breeze of Jerez allows for the development of the unique strain of yeast known as flor, so does the humid ocean air encourage varieties of mold spores whose enzymes are a byproduct of growth on the ham’s rind.
This equates to flavors that are not only unique, but systematically replicable.
At least one swine scientist believes that the processing is far more fundamental than diet to the ultimate splendor of cured, aged ham. Edward Mills, associate professor of meat science at Penn State University, says, “Corn and soy are pretty bland. The pig that’s been eating corn and soybeans doesn’t have big flavors coming from its diet; the flavors you taste after processing are already inherent in the meat. A pig’s fundamental energy metabolism system has a number of compounds in it that are already very flavorful and that contribute to savory, ‘meaty’ flavors. Assuming that there is enough marbling to deliver a variety of flavors, I think you can make a great tasting product without doing anything special in terms of feeding.”
So, the problem I encountered in writing a story about Smithfield hams at the fountainhead was twofold: First, Smithfield Foods, the Fortune 500 Company that owns Smithfield Packing Company, does not offer tours or journalist interviews.
Second, when I tried to find somebody else to ham it up with about Smithfield hams, it turns out that Smithfield Packing Company is the only show in town. The world’s largest slaughterhouse, SPC processes more than 20 million hogs a year, all inside the small, rural city limits, and since 1936, they have systematically bought up every single mom ‘n’ pop pork preserver in the area. Not only was my image of this hallowed Southern farmhouse tradition shattered into bone splinters, it turns out that Smithfield Packing is no longer even American: A Chinese firm bought the $15 billion behemoth in 2013.
Thus, I despaired of tracking down my quarry, a quaint slice of colonial culinary Americana, but when I stopped for directions back to wine country at a Smithfield gas station, I found a tattered flyer for ‘Darden’s Country Store and Salt-Cured Pork’.
And that’s how I met Tommy Darden, a throwback to pre-monopoly days when men were men and hams were hams and a little mold on the rind was all in a day’s work.
In order to find him, though, I had to spend an hour sloshing around the sodden bottomland of Isle of Wight County, which has an average elevation of fifteen feet (compared to a national average of 1300 ft.); Tommy’s store is in the heart of what this city Yank would call backwoods, accessible only by a matrix of boondocksian roads that even locals struggled to remember. The Darden website, likely designed by some citified iPhone-using college kid, offers the following coordinates: ‘We are conveniently located 375 miles South of New York City, 144 miles Northeast of Lizard Lick, N.C., 2003 miles East of Truth or Consequences, N.M., 1027 miles North of Key Largo.’
As a result, it was no surprise when Tommy Darden turned out to look like every city Yank’s preconception of every good ol’ boy—hefty, ruddy, dressed in overalls and prone to big grins through his broad drawl. And that particular drawl is Tidewater, Virginia specific, where a car is a ‘cyar’ and Tommy’s big dog winds up having four syllables, ‘Bi-yug daw-ug’.
Strangest, perhaps, is his pronunciation of ‘about’, which takes on the Canadian raised-diphthong, coming out as ‘aboat’, only with a slight rhotic addition, so that it almost sounds like ‘abort’. This accent is so amped up in the small island of Tangier (about twenty miles offshore in the Chesapeake Bay) that you swear you are listening to Robert Newton playing Long John Silver in Treasure Island. Tangiers was settled by folks from England’s southwest coast, Cornwall in particular, where both Robert Newton and Edward Teach were born. Teach, a.k.a. Blackbeard, was Long John’s historical counterpart, and as in the clichéd ‘arrrrrgh’, the heavy Cornish emphasis on the letter ‘r’ in certain words is still heard in this wet corner of Virginia where, for reasons mostly involving cultural isolation, the roots of rhotic remain.
According to Tommy Darden, he is the last of the old-time salt-curers in the region, having survived the Smithfield Packing Company competition mop-up by the fickle finger of geographical fate: His smokehouse is in Isle of Wight, VA, just outside of the Smithfield Ham limits. So, he doesn’t officially make Smithfield Ham, although his ham is far more classical Smithfield than Smithfield’s.
His family (“Mumma ‘n’ Daddy”) has been in the ham trade since the early 1950s, although the Dardens have been part of the local history since the beginning. There have been local Dardens in government (gubmint), Dardens in business (bidniz) and Dardens practicing law in Norfork (Nawfuck), but the Ilse of Wight Dardens are peanut farmers and hog slaughters to the bone. His strange little crossroads general store contains, according to Tommy, “…all the basic necessities of life…”
That would include—beside ham sandwiches—ham hocks, ham ends, ham liquor (water from boiling hams), ham fat, home-roasted peanuts, candy bars, camouflage gear and three shelves of Budweiser.
The camo gear is not for the hogs, but for deer. The wall of the tiny room is festooned with mounted trophy bucks, many of which were taken by Tommy, and the door is heavy with scotch-taped snapshots of people posing with dead deer. There’s also a sign reading ‘Report Feral Swine’—a big problem in hog country. Whether related to work or sport or in simply doing your civic duty, most of the pastimes in rural Isle of Wight seem to end up with mammal carcasses.
Once slaughtered, Tommy Darden’s hogs are cut into cuts—hams, shoulders, jowls—and processed according to anatomical precedence. Each has its use, as in the old saying, here made manifest: ‘We use everything but the squeal’. There’s a New Year’s Day tradition of eating black-eyed peas and greens with either pork jowls or fatback to ensure prosperity; the ‘liquor’ made from boiling salted meats is a superb base for bean soup and the snouts are fried as sold as doggie treats. Tommy was pleased to learn that gelatin made from the pig bones is used to clarify his second most popular staple, beer—completing the cycle.
In Darden’s, every nook has a cranny and every cranny a niche, but in one of them there’s an old pot-bellied stove, a ratty sofa, a couple of wobbly stools and an old man named Garland Whitney, who is—in some convoluted genealogical daisy-chain understood only by Southerners—Darden kinfolk. If the store itself is a set-piece from Hooterville, Garland Whitney looks like every casting director’s image of a country cracker who doesn’t realize the Civil War—strike that, the War of Northern Aggression—is over. Garland’s got a ZZ Top white beard, a gnarly nose and a surly constitution, and when I offered to buy him a beer in exchange for a photo, he became a little surlier and asked, “Why?”
But he took the beer and I took the photo.
Tommy Darden joined us, with his bi-yug daw-ug curled comfortably beside him. He explained the process, which—like these comfortable conversations around a wood-stove in the general store in January—has remained essentially unchanged since Mallory Todd began shipping hams to 18th century Bermuda.
He generally begins with a long shank with a butt cut at the sacral joint; his hogs are quick-growing breeds, often peanut-fed, leading to hams of around 30 lbs each, maximum: Heavier cuts are more likely to spoil before the curing agents penetrate to prevent deterioration.
In Darden’s case, that agent is sea salt, among the most abundant compound on earth. He packs the leg quarters entirely in the stuff, flipping them as the meat starts doing dead meat stuff—oozing fluid and gas—and removing them after around 45 days depending on the temperature and the humidity. Since no refrigeration is employed at any point during the curing process, warmer weather requires less salt time and colder weather, more salt time. By the end of it, in any case, according to Tommy the ham has turned ‘Ambah culuh…’ Amber color.
According to Darden, there are ‘folks up in the hills’ who use sugar as a curing compound, and he spoke of them a touch disdainfully, since sugar does not actually cure the meat—it merely flavors it. Flatlander superiority runs rampant in his VA veins.
Tommy Darden and his wife DeeDee cure about six hundred hams a year, but there’s both passion and excitement as he runs through the steps—steps he’s adhered to since an FFA project in ‘hah school’. But none of it is rote. Atmospheric conditions determine the ham’s development far more than intuition—weather dictates when remove the hams from the salt, how long to dry them and when (and if) to smoke.
After the curing, the hams are rinsed and hung in a shed to dry in a stage that Darden refers to as ‘coming up’. Afterwards, he generally slow-smokes them over green hickory or green apple wood depending on what’s available. Smoking, Darden points out, is optional and not part of the curing process; some folks choose to avoid it. Those folks will generally treat unsmoked ham with a rub made of saltpeter and black pepper, and occasionally with cayenne and molasses, to assist in the drying and punch up the flavor.
During the drying, smoking, and subsequent return to the hanging shed, 8 to 12 percent of the initial weight may be lost. At this point, the rind forms and the signature mold develops. ‘Signature’ because every ham house has its own mold, or combination of molds, and—grisly as it seems upon first reading about it—a certain amount of mold seeps into the hog tissue and gives each ham a unique savor. Again, it’s a temperature-dependent phenomenon: The hotter the weather, the more the ham expands, and the more mold it absorbs.
After 45 to 180 days, depending on the style, the question then becomes a bit more delicate: To cook or not cook the finished product. The The USDA allows ham to be labeled as fully cooked, uncooked, smoked, long cured, bone in, nitrites and/or nitrates, salt-cured, sugar-cured, Smithfield, center cut, etc., but is less straightforward on simply making a ruling requiring a label saying that country hams shouldn’t be eaten raw.
I think that it is a fair bet that Tommy Darden boils the hell out of the ham he serves, sliced to order, from behind the plastic counter in his country store, primarily because when I asked him if there were any other cottage industry ham-makers around, he said, “Heck, outside my kitchen, you can’t even find a pot big enough to cook a ham in.”
Also, in the fabulous confabulation of Lady Colonel Nancy Newsom Mahaffey of Princeton, Kentucky, whose family has been putting up Virginia-style hams for generations: “You have to understand something about Southern cooking: People will cook something and cook it again. There is no such thing as blanched green beans in the South. And most people will cook these hams to death. It’s true. I never ate a piece of toast that wasn’t burnt until I was an adult.”
“You may find it a bit salty,” Tommy Darden drawled as he passed me a reddish wedge of swine heinie and another to Garland Whitney, who tucked into it noisily and happily despite being a few molars short of a denture set. In fact, it was like chewing on a deer’s salt lick, but I gamely pretended to enjoy it anyway. Apparently, this is the nature of the beast, and the extreme sodium overload took some getting used to. I will say that, in respect for the time he’d offered me, I bought a pound of Darden country ham, and took it home with me. And promptly forgot about it. Three weeks later, I found it in my backpack, where it had nestled unrefrigerated all that time, and by God, it smelled as edible the day he’d sliced it.
Although a pork product without an expiration date is not particularly high on my bucket list of consumables devoutly to be wished, I confess the hope that Darden’s Country Store itself is the sort of culinary, cultural gem that has an infinite shelf life.