Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Country ham. As in USA. Sans apologies.

First of all, I am not apologizing for the carnage herein so let's get that idea right out of the way.

Secondly, those of you who are at the moment thinking: Pass on the Virginia ham, I will just order proscuitto from actual Italy: Shame!

Finally, this isn't health food. Not everything you do for country assists longevity. These causes are mutually exclusive, actually. But this is an American cut and cure and is then, in my estimation, better than every other other ham and it is our ham.

You can buy one, cost you about $35 and then keep it in the cupboard. Slice off it whenever you need a quick meal or snack. Seriously, right there in the pantry.

Now, a short tale: My Father would not have flank or skirt steak in the house. He considered them poor cuts and somehow associated having those things in the house with a place not being a decent household. Even after these steaks became popular and mainstream they were not served in his home. Country ham has a similar issue in some homes, it is associated with hard times and hard-scrabble people.

But, look, food is not to blame for hardship; Conditions, circumstances, and maybe some fate are wrapped up in that, too. But hell if any ham I ever met made you poor nor any truffle a tycoon. Food, in my estimation, is a thing to be experienced and managed at a fiscal level; hunting and gathering having largely been reduced to accounting and acquiring, sadly.

However, when I drive past McDonald's I often think to myself poor food. Maybe country ham is the McDonald's of a different time; I don't know about that. I only know I keep one around because I cook a great deal and aside from the snack asset, it does beautifully in lunch dishes and casseroles. In fact, I was served an amazing thinly sliced Virginia ham on a huge biscuit with house-made mustard at Market Salamander in Middleburg and was reminded why I would tolerate a ham soaking on my counter for three days. I am not going to hold the ham responsible for the rise and fall of ecomomies, that is six places removed from my table. But I might hold McD's there, my jury is still out.

Not having been brought up on country ham, a long commitment to the work of Edna Lewis taught me to appriciate Virginia cured ham. Admittedly, the idea of a ham that is kept in cool room air was at first curious and alarming, then I remembered the proscuitto.

Once you get your ham, it is going to take - roughly - half a week to get it in fighting shape so prepare yourself. You do not have to work at it, you just have to be okay with a ham hanging about in the kitchen, or whereever, for four days. But you will get through it and it will be worth the fight.

You might also want to do some stretching. Just to limber-up a bit? They are about 15 pounds or so and will need a huge pot and a good deal of room.

Then, when it is all through and the ham is cooked and the day is done, you will be in pork forever or at least a couple of months or have a buffet item for thirty. You can serve brunch, to an infantry unit or so. Which would be a nice thing to do with your new ham. Just saying, is all.

God bless America.

From Edna Lewis's In Pursuit of Flavor (Alfred A. Knopf, University of Virginia Press, 1998):

"No one who knows Virginia ham is surprised when it is served to them cold. The hams just fall apart if they are sliced warm, although sometimes I heat up a few slices in the oven.

"When you buy a Virginia ham be sure you get one that is not cooked. If you do get one that is already cooked, be sure you slice it very thin - but even so there is a good chance the texture will be like wood. After you cook the ham, you have to skin it and cut off some of the fat. You should leave a layer of fat so that when you slice it there is a nice looking rim of fat around the edge, as with proscuitto.

"After the ham is cooked, cooled, and as much as you need has been sliced off, wrap it well in parchment and foil (not plastic) and keep it in a cool room or if you have space, the refidgerator. When I was young, we used to keep the hams in a pie safe in the pantry. That way, we always had meat, already cooked, on hand for visitors or quick meals. I usually serve the ham with Mustard and Brown Sugar, which is sort of sweet and contrasts with the salty, dry meat... Virginia ham is delicious served in a biscuit, warm or cold. It will keep for months refridgerated, if it develops a little mold, just scrape it off."

Edna Lewis's recipes for cooking Virginia ham and related dishes and sauces appear at Blushing Hostess Cooks.


James said...

I am speechless. A truly enjoyable post, thank you.

little augury said...

As you can surely guess-I say nothing better hands down. Farmers would bring my dad these "things" by he pr for Christmas and Easter. Love Love Love them and Edna Lewis -Saint Edna I say-sans apologies. my mouth is watering right now.

Reggie Darling said...

I adore ham, and authentic made in the USA country ham especially. it it is a great treat here in Yankee-land. Reminds me of the old joke:

Q:How do you define "eternity"?
A: Two people and a ham

Great post -- Reggie

Blue said...

Excellent post. Thank you. Though not from here, I do appreciate being able to eat traditionally made foods. I'm from an area in the north west of England that has its own cheese, its own oatcakes, parkin, pies - all still made well on local farms, dairies and bakeries.

Alice said...

Born and bred in the great Commonwealth of Kentucky, I was raised on country ham. My mouth just waters for just a small nibble!

Modern Traditionalist said...

Dear Blushing,
Your post has left me wanting for something more than what my lamentable yogurt can deliver. As a fairly new Virginian I must ask, are there any brands you find of exceptional quality?


home before dark said...

I love what Lucindaville wrote about pork and southeners who eat "everything but the squeal and the tail." Would someone pass the biscuits, please?

Whitney and the Preppy Puppy said...

What a fun post! I can't remember a holiday that my Virginia-born grandmother didn't make country ham biscuits. Delicious!

Acanthus and Acorn said...

Love Viginia ham, especially served on a homemade biscuit! It's hard for me to understand how anyone can not enjoy it.

DocP said...

Any recommended sources for those of us living in New England?

Lisa said...

The skirt steak comment from your dad reminded me of my years living in Texas. Fajitas were THE thing to serve/eat and they were made with skirt steak, marinated all day/night to be edible. Oh were they good!! and the meat was plentiful. We moved to Iowa and there wasn't a skirt steak to be seen. When I asked the butcher at my market he looked at me with disdain and asked 'why?'. I tried to explain and did eventually get my way but I had to order it (10#) and pick it up in a week. It was a surprise birthday dinner for my Texan husband. I have noticed on frequent visits to Texas that the price/pound doesn't quite fit the cut of meat. It's gone designer.

I grew up on ham (being from Iowa of course) and we always had a fresh one for Easter. Yum. Husband won't touch it - more for me.

Maggie said...

How many ways do I love this post? Real ham AND Edna Lewis. Swooning...

Roy said...

I love that Edna Lewis book and just recently read the recipe you posted. I love how she tells you to just scrape off the mold. I can imagine some paranoid cooks just chucking the whole thing when they see the mold starting to grow.

The Blushing Hostess said...

James and LA - Indeed.

Reggie - My whole family laughed at this and then there was a long pause... "So true. Say, that reminds me, are we through with the Easter ham yet?"

Blue - I read a food blog from the UK that covers those kinds of local specialties, I constantly am googling the terminology but I am fascinated as my Grandfather, who I adored, hailed from Hartlepool.

Alice - I can imagine! You swing by anytime you need some, certainly seems I will be serving this thing into eternity.

MT - Edna Lewis's book always recommend Gwaltney and while I have been able to find that brand in small cuts and steaks, I have not seen it in a complete country ham. I buy Smithfield and they are delicious, but if I ever do come across the other I will have to impulse buy it... impulsive pork fat...

Home - that's only a smidge more of the animal than I can really consume. I see the feet and things at the store and I have to admit, I am standoffish to say the least but, like native Italians, I admire the wherewithall not to waste...

Whiteny and AA - that's right, I love a good biscuit with it. Although, between Bisquick and Pillsbury, there seems to be a good deal of confusion as to what a real biscuit is...

Doc - here is a resource for the one I buy uncooked, they will ship it directly:
They also sell these at cost clubs throughout the south...

Lisa - I once lived on North Padre outside Corpus and had a similar experience, they use another cut in Texas for the local specialties like carne asada but I cannot rememeber what it is, was it ever fabulous... but let me add, you should have seen the looks when I tried to order a duck for Christmas in South Texas... I feel your pain.

Maggie - you just coem on by should you be needing any, I have 12 pounds remaining!

Roy - Oh, I wondered if that would get remarks, you know. Because the concept of a thing still being okay in that condition is so far from our wasteful intolerences.

TWJ said...

Dear Blushing,
My family has farmed in Virginia for eight generations and has been curing hams about that long. As kids, my brother and I used to go to my grandparent’s farm in Pittsylvania County for the holidays. I still can smell the curing hams hanging in the curing barn next to the house. There is nothing better than fried country ham, red eye gravy, and homemade biscuits in the morning.


The Blushing Hostess said...

TWJ - Oh my gosh! Please let me know if you would ever entertain visitors! That's marvelous!

pve design said...

Country ham is a rare treat and a weakness, especially served with grits and gravy and of course some Southern biscuits. My Father grew up on a farm and it was considered a delicacy. That and a home-made jar of jam are life's riches.

tintin said...

Shrimp and Grits with a side of country ham. My idea of a surf and turf.

SuSu said...

Country ham is now a Christmas tradition for this Yankee, married to a 10th generation Virginian. On warm biscuits, a little mustard and cranberry relish - heaven on a biscuit. My husband's grandfather cured his own and that ham was the best I've ever had...wish we got the secret before he died!

I also highly recommend the Edwards Ham from Surry County, Virginia. I had the smaller spiral cut for a Christmas open house and it went! And, if you can eat it, their bacon and sausage are to die for! Great website and easy to order.