In an ornate dresser in the Pembroke Decatur Gwaltney Suite of the venerable Smithfield Inn, a video featuring the world’s largest ham biscuit shares the top drawer with a Gideon Bible. Ham is that important in Smithfield, Va., and Smithfield’s hams are amongst the world’s best.
In 1779, Captain Mallory Todd shipped a quantity of hams, salt cured in his smokehouse using Native American methods, to Elliston and John Perot on St. Eustatius in the Caribbean. In return, Todd received, among other items, a 2-pound cannon and a hat.
This transaction marked the first known commercial sale of a Smithfield ham. Connoisseurs now recognize the Smithfield country ham as one of the world’s culinary delicacies, on a par with Spain’s jamón serrano and Italy’s parmas and prosciuttos. A genuine Smithfield has a distinctive dark pink color and pungent flavor — robust, salty, and rich with hardwood smoke.
Incorporated in the laws of the Virginia Commonwealth, a genuine Smithfield ham originally required a Virginia- or North Carolina-raised, peanut-fed razorback hog, cured within the city limits of Smithfield. Peanuts make the hams oily, and a genuine Smithfield ham can be preserved indefinitely.
Following Todd’s lead, thousands of hams were packed into wooden barrels and shipped to the Caribbean from Smithfield’s port on the Pagan River. As curing operations grew in size, the town had to move its boundaries a time or two to accommodate new facilities.
In 1936, Joseph W. Luter and his son founded a small meatpacking company, The Smithfield Packing Company. Today’s Smithfield Foods Inc. operates the largest ham company in the world and is the No. 1 U.S. producer of packaged pork products. The “genuine Smithfield ham” is still born, bred, and produced only in Smithfield. During 2015, the Smithfield brand sold more than 150 million pounds of ham, producing more than 40 varieties of cuts and flavors, sold nationwide and internationally.
In the company’s 19 smokehouses, more than 68,000 hams hang and age according to the type of cure and ultimate market.
“We salt cure the meat for three, six, or nine months,” said Smithfield’s Jorge Morales, supervisor of the dry cure operation. “A country ham hangs for 90 days; a genuine Smithfield for as much as six months. … We check every one by hand; we check for appropriate color. It’s a judgment call.” (smithfield.com)
Along with Smithfield Foods, several smaller producers still salt cure, hang, and smoke hams.
The Darden family cures about 1,000 hams each year in the smokehouse on their 600-acre farm, and sells the hams along with homemade sausage, pimento cheese, chicken salad, and pot pies in their Darden’s Country Store.
For more than 60 years, in a nondescript shed on a back country road, the Dardens have made some of the world’s finest hams. Purchasing fresh hams from Smithfield, the Dardens hand-salt each one, ensuring the salt penetrates into the hock.
“The salt has got to go to the bone,” said Dee Dee Darden, dowager of the clan.
First stacked flat, the hams cure for seven days before getting salted again and restacked on edge. “That gives it a round shape, easier for slicing,” explained Darden.
“In mid-March, we rinse the hams in warm water, then coat them with black pepper. In mid-April, we smoke the hams using hickory and apple wood in a barrel smoker; I don’t know how many people have stopped to tell us that our barn’s on fire,” joked Darden.
Aged for a full year and sliced so thin as to be translucent, the meat is dark and oily, but almost flaky. The flavor is full, lasting, and distinctive. But, there is more than ham to Smithfield. Visitors can enjoy historical sites, shopping, excellent accommodations, and the town’s welcoming, Southern ambiance.
SOUTHERN-STYLE PEACH-HONEY HAM BAKE
Courtesy of Smithfield Foods Inc.
1 fully cooked Smithfield Ham
2 tablespoons spicy mustard
1 1/2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 cup peach preserves
2 tablespoons peach nectar
1/4 cup honey
In a small saucepan, combine all ingredients, except the ham, and bring to a simmer.
Brush 1/3 of the mixture over the ham and bake uncovered for approximately 1 hour or until a meat thermometer reads 130 F, brushing with the glaze every 20 minutes.
Let the ham stand 10 minutes before serving.
Reed Hellman is a professional writer living in Alberton, Md. Visit reedhellmanwordsmith.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org