Editor's note: Occasionally what looks at first glance to be a conventional guidebook transcends the genre in surprising ways. John T. Edge's Southern Belly is just such a read, which is why I'm pleased that he has allowed us to excerpt selected items from it on Serious Eats, where they appear every other week. —Ed Levine
By John T. Edge | The Italians wouldn't put up with this. Imagine some governmental agency coming between the good citizens of Rome and their supply of prosciutto di Parma. And you can be sure that the French would raise a ruckus if Parisians were cut off from their artisanal sources for saucisson sec.
But for the most part, we Southerners just knuckled under when the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared that unless a ham is cured in a USDA-inspected facility, it cannot be commercially transported across state lines or served in a restaurant. In other words, Trigg County ham producers like Doug Freeman and Charlie Bell Wadlington, Tennie Vanzant, and Kerry Fowler, who, like their fathers and grandfathers before them, put up hams the old-fashioned way, could no longer ship their product to customers in the Carolinas, much less California, nor could they sell their hams to the local café.
Never mind that nary a soul has ever fallen ill from ingesting a true country ham, while outbreaks of botulism seem to be rife in our nation's baloney and hot dog processing plants. "That's as poor a law as I've ever heard of," Freeman tells me when I stopped by his farm to pick up one of those teardrop-shaped beauties hanging in the back of his smokehouse. "I remember when I was a boy everybody up and down the road killed their own hogs. My father used to buy his groceries on credit and settled up with the store when he brought in those hams. Some years they even owed him money. My wife and I used to sell our hams to pay our fertilizer bill. Those days are gone."
Traditionally the cycle starts sometime around November, soon after cold weather sits in for good. After the hogs are butchered and the lard rendered, hams are trimmed of excess fat and submerged in a vat of salt with perhaps a little sugar added to the mix. There the hams rest for a period of two to five weeks before being wiped down and hung to cure.
Ask 20 folks what is best done next and you're likely to get 20 different answers. Some smoke their hams for a few days over smoldering hickory while others like Freeman add a bit of sassafras wood to the mix. Most agree that hams must go through what are called the summer sweats, wherein excess moisture not coaxed out by time spent in the salt trickles away during the infernal heat of summer.
Nearly a year passes before Freeman pulls his hams down from the rafters of the family smokehouse. Curing a country ham takes patience, but with the first bite you will soon resolve that it is worth any amount of money, any length of wait, for the meat is as sublime a treat as you are likely to ever sample: smoky, sweet, and bracingly salty if sliced and fried, salt-kissed and mellow if boiled.
And though you may curse the government regulations that are to blame for a decided drop in ham production by some of the old masters, there is an ancillary benefit to this unwarranted governmental intrusion: if you travel to Trigg County, you get to meet kind folks like Doug Freeman. Ask nicely, and he'll give you a lesson in carving that lovely hunk of hog flesh, so that you can avoid flecks of what Doug calls sawdust and you might recognize as bone dust. "A butcher with one of those saws will spray the ham with dust," says Doug. "But if you do it yourself and you're real careful, you can slice it up nice and clean."
Doug Freeman’s Country Hams
605 New Hope Road, Cadiz KY 42211 (map) 502-522-8900
N.B.: Freeman is angling to retire any day now. If he can't take care of you, Colonel Bill at Newsom's Country Hams will.
Newsom's Country Hams
208 East Main Street, Princeton KY 42445 (map) 270-365-2482