When the Smoke Gets in Your Thighs

My dad grew up in Winchester, VA, in the northern bit of the state from whence hail a lot of good apples and Patsy Cline. (My dad’s dad was a food scientist at National Fruit; that meant we got to eat a lot of amazing peaches from dented cans.) Though pretty close to the Mason-Dixon line, and not far from the mid-Atlantic coast, it’s still definitely the South there, or at least was when he was growing up. Now I guess it’s as much a bedroom community for DC as it is a small Southern city. At any rate, hailing from Virginia meant my dad learned early about sugar-cured, hickory-smoked country ham. Occasionally as a kid we’d get country ham, and mostly what I remember is its overwhelming saltiness. I wasn’t a big ham fan then and not the salt fiend I am now, so it seemed pretty gross. I’ve had it once or twice in recent years, but always sliced from a package and never made from non-industrial hogs, so I’ve yet to be impressed by it, but my dad waxes nostalgic over it every time the topic of ham comes up (which is not infrequently in my family). Now that I’m doing a little ham-curing of my own, though, I’ve become intrigued by country ham. Turns out it’s basically cold-smoked prosciutto: it sits in salt in cool temps for a month or so and it gets hung to dry for many months. But between the hell of salt and the heaven of hanging, it wanders as much as an unattached thigh can in the purgatory of wood smoke, until it is finally deemed ready to ascend. Like any good Southern food, regional variants exist: what goes in the initial cure besides salt, the kind of wood for smoking, how long it gets smoked — all differ depending on who’s doing it and where. (A good story about a Kentucky version here.) It tends to be eaten cooked, unlike European dry-cured hams, and in thick-ish slices, which is why mostly what I remember about it is the salt. If you ate prosciutto sliced like ham at Sunday dinner, you’d be overwhelmed by its saltiness too. But most recipes call for cooking country ham it in a way that purges some of the salt content, and it seems that these days some more chef-y types are slicing it thin for charcuterie plates, which sounds pretty good to me. So, I’ve put in an order for another ham from Dave at Young Earth, and provided I can find someone to do the smoking (I don’t think my city neighbors would like hickory smoke belching from my backyard for a month), I hope to have a real country ham like my dad had growing up to give to him for his 80th birthday next winter.


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