Virginia hams hold a hallowed place in the culinary lore of my hard-eating heritage. During my childhood as a missionary kid in Japan, we would receive a smoked ham every Christmas from relatives back in Virginia and stretch out the eating of it as long as we could. The current issue of Common-Place now puts Virginia hams in fuller historical perspective in a fascinating article by David S. Shields entitled “The Search for the Cure: The quest for the superlative American ham“:
No food in colonial Anglo-America declared gustatory adequacy at the world table more forcefully than ham. Travelers to the English territories, such as Rev. Andrew Burnaby, declared American pork superior in flavor to any in the world. With the establishment of the republic, the ingenuity of a population of artisanal food producers fixed upon improving the most estimable of American products, ham. Eminence in the sociable world of the agricultural societies, distinction in the market place, and victory in the food contests at the burgeoning world of fairs stimulated innovation in the curing of hams. Here we will chronicle the articulation of two schools of ham production: the dry-cure sect, who would increasingly view themselves as purists and traditionalists, and the wet curists, who regarded themselves as experimentalists in taste, economy, and scientific agriculture, yet whose pork brined in a barrel was the staple of the common household.
Antiquity conveyed the ur-cure, the primordial method of preserving meat. Salting and drying meat prevented the decomposition of flesh because moisture is a requisite for most bacterial reproduction and salt (sodium chloride) draws moisture from flesh. Unfortunately, sweating meat in rock salt turned muscle tissue gray and tough. It was discovered, however, that certain types of rock salt—salt with impurities—kept meat red and somewhat moist. This impure form of salt—called saltpeter—was sought out and admixed with salt for meat preservation until the Middle Ages when smoking was added to salt and saltpeter to impart flavor and to counter insect depredations. The method practiced by Europeans at the time of the settlement of Jamestown—common to Westphalian ham and Jamon de Iberica—was the “three s method”: salt, saltpeter, smoke.
Ham modernity dates from the erection of what Wolfgang Shivelbusch has called the first global drug culture—the oceanic trading system that made the exchange of sugar, spice, tea, coffee, and chocolate the engine of the world system. Only after the explosion of the world sugar supply occasioned by the consolidation of the Brazilian cane plantations in the sixteenth century was the commodity cheap enough for trial and error in the kitchen and smokehouse. Indeed, there was decidedly a sugar moment in Western cuisine, when sucrose was added to everything as the pangustatory element. When added as the fourth s to the ancient cure, sugar mellowed the harshness of salted flesh. Sugar-cured hams became the bedrock of American porcine cuisine….
Ever since Hernando DeSoto brought his thirteen hogs into Florida, swine have flourished in North America. The earliest breeds did not resemble today’s industrial pink pig. Indeed, the first settled hogs, the Iberico Black hog, the Old English breed, do not resemble their breed descendents, the Spanish Black and the Hampshire. Of these early types there is only one extraordinarily rare example left in America: the Ossabaw Island pig, a mottled descendent of the pigs that Spaniards loosed on the islands of the Caribbean and along the southeastern coast. One population survived into the twenty-first century on Ossabaw Island off the coast of Georgia. Slow-growing, irritable, and the most efficient fat-producing mammal known to science, the breed has become the fascination of biologists working on obesity studies….
Testimonies about the quality of New World ham date from 1688 when Rev. John Clayton, reporting to the Royal Society his observations on the commodities of Virginia, declared the meat as good as any to be had in Westphalia. This is a far more informative claim than it might appear on the surface, for it reveals much about the mode of preparation. Traditional Westphalian ham is made from hogs fattened with acorns from the oak forests of western Germany and then dry cured and smoked over a cold fire of beechwood and juniper boughs. The original Virginia ham derived its flavor from an acorn mast and dry curing. It was smoked. This is worth noting because during the eighteenth century there would be disagreement about the proper feeding of pigs and a related alteration in the method of curing….
William Byrd (1674-1744), the Virginia gentleman who championed an ethic of agricultural improvement, criticized the habit among country farmers (typified, for him, by the lazy North Carolinians described in his Histories of the Dividing Line) of letting hogs roam free in the forests to graze on roots and acorns. The semi-wild hog developed stringy muscle from its robust wandering life, and the farmer lost the benefit of its manure. Byrd would keep his pigs penned and fed on dung heap scraps. But with this diet, the meat of his animals, while more tender, risked becoming less palatable. What mattered more, taste or economy?… Feeding hogs on corn was pioneered in Pennsylvania at the end of the eighteenth century. In Virginia, where the taste of the mast-fed pig haunted the gustatory imagination, traditionalists followed the old country practice of letting swine loose in the woods. The practice continued until the early twentieth century when peanut mast was found to instill in pork something like that piquant yet mellow flavor infused by acorns….
Saltpeter, while essential for the preservation of hams, proved equally if not more important as an ingredient of gunpowder. In June 1642 the General Court of Massachusetts ordered every town to erect a shed and “make saltpeter from urine of men, beastes, goates, hennes, hogs and horses dung.”…
Putting chilled, freshly butchered hams in salt was the only part of the process that did not suffer alteration in any of the schools of dry-cure preparation. European tradition usually had the slaughter of winter meat occur on St. Martinmass Day, November 11. But because of the importance of cool weather in the curing of hams, it took place substantially later in the American South: December in Virginia; January in the Carolinas. The fresh-butchered meat had to be cooled to about forty degrees Fahrenheit when salting was begun. Traditionalists would follow salting with the other two s‘s of the “dry cure”: saltpeter and smoke. The proportions varied, but J. Q. Hewlitt’s formula of one thousand pounds of meat, three pecks of Liverpool salt, and four pounds of saltpeter presented a norm. The hams were packed in tubs or casks. These were often perforated to allow liquid to drip out during the minimum of three weeks sitting. At the end of the salting period, during which fresh salt was often added to the tubs, the ham would be extracted and the salt coating washed off. Hewlitt then smoked the hams in a closed room using green hickory chips. It was important that the smoke be cool, so as not to cook the hams. Temperature in the smokehouse was not to exceed human body temperature. At the end of February the hams would be sewn up in bags for protection.
And that’s how they were shipped to us in Japan. We had to soak each ham about 24 hours before cooking and eating any of it.