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Published: 1/29/2008

A savory taste of homemade history

BY BOB BATZ, JR.
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

CADIZ, Ky. - Some folks here are so serious about ham, they still make their own.

And here - near the far western tip of Kentucky, as in many places south of the Mason-Dixon Line - the only serious ham is "country ham."

Cadiz (pronounced, in a lovely drawl, KAY-deez) is home to the Trigg County Ham Festival, which for 31 years has celebrated the traditional craft of cutting and curing country ham.

This is old-school ham - the kind the pilgrims and pioneers and their predecessors made by curing the just-butchered pig haunches in salt. This preserves the uncooked meat so that it can keep, without refrigeration, for months, and even longer.

A ham billed as the world's oldest is displayed in a museum in the more famous Virginia ham capital of Smithfield 105 years after it was cured.

But most country hams get gobbled up much more quickly.

They just take a relatively long time to make.

These days, most country hams (or "red hams" ) are made by commercial processors in Kentucky and other country-ham states: Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Missouri. In these parts you'll see these "dry-cured" country hams hanging from the rafters in general stores and supermarkets, as well as in the collective identity.

You want serious ham? Broadbent's B&B Foods, a well-known commercial processor just outside of Cadiz on the other side of the interstate to Nashville, Tenn., for the third consecutive year won Grand Champion ham at the 2006 Kentucky State Fair. That one 17.2-pound ham was auctioned off (to a bank) for a half-million dollars, to benefit charity, and was displayed at charity breakfasts before being eaten, presumably sliced mighty thin.

But to most Yankees, ham is what Southerners might call "city ham" or "pink ham." It's wet-cured - that is, soaked in and/or injected with brine, either through the arteries and capillaries or via needles in the flesh. This kind of ham comes in various versions, but it generally bears as little resemblance to its country cousin as an urban desk jockey's baby-soft hands do to a hog farmer's gnarled mitts.

With country ham, the taste is, in a word, salty, and the texture tends to be tougher, as dry-curing pulls the water out of the meat. Federal regulations require country ham to be at least 4 percent salt, and it can be so salty that some people can't stand it. But aficionados, from hillbillies to foodies, cite the intense flavor, enhanced by the smoking that most, but not all, country hams receive (usually hickory, but it can also be apple and other wood).

Some say the best country hams rival Italian prosciutto and Spanish jamon, which tend to be cured longer - drier - to be shaved thin and eaten raw.

I took a tour of the Broadbent packing plant (in a former seed-corn barn) and smokehouse. Owner Ronny Drennan gave me a quick tutorial on country ham, which his operation makes with a process that's slightly speeded up, but still longer than many processors use. But Broadbent cures about 10,000 hams a year. Most of them - 60 percent - sell just before Christmas (for about $4 a pound uncooked, $10 cooked).

I learned that their country hams are cured with a typical cure of salt, sugar, honey and sodium nitrate (it acts as a preservative, helps the salt penetrate faster and enhances the deep color). Most aren't sold until they're aged about eight or nine months, by which time they will have lost about 25 percent to 30 percent of their weight (the rule is that they lose at least 18 percent).

But mostly I reveled in the deep hickory, porky, bonne ham perfume, which is what Drennan smells like after work.

"All the dogs love you," he said.

To make your own country hams, you need even more patience than salt. You also need a smokehouse, an air- and light-tight place for the curing and aging to gradually commence.

Purists are skeptical of the "shortcuts" commercial processors take and wish a minimum aging time was regulated. Folks in Cadiz will tell you that the process properly takes a full year, beginning in the late fall or early winter. The result is a ham for the holidays - if not for Thanksgiving, then for Christmas, or New Year's, or if you're really lucky, all three.

"They always say, if you kill after Thanksgiving, they won't spoil," said Jason Oakley, 35. He was one of the guys - and ham makers are almost always guys - standing with their hams under the tent under the yellowing maple trees on the lawn of the Cadiz Christian Church this past second Saturday of October.

This was the competition part of the Trigg County Ham Festival. While there was a lot of ham in the "world's largest edible country ham biscuit" that was being cut and served at the other end of the crowded business district, there wasn't a lot of ham in the festival.

Oakley entered one, as did his dad, Joe, and there were eight other homemade hams.

"We just don't have as many people curing hams," said David Fourqurean, the county cooperative extension agent who cooked up a youth category for hams made by 4-H club members at Broadbent to try to keep this part of local heritage alive.

"It's not convenient," he said of country ham. "But it is good."

Joe and Jason Oakley's hams got the yellow and pink ribbons, for fifth and fourth place, respectively.

The blue ribbon and Grand Champion silver platter went to ham entered by Tony Holland, a 50-year-old state highway inspector.

This was just the second year he'd made six hams, "just playing around." But he won Grand Champion here last year, too, after reading a how-to book.

Someone yelled, "What you gonna do with your ham, Holland?" Holland grinned and answered, "Eat it" - sliced and fried on New Year's Day.

Bob Batz Jr. can be reached at bbatz@post-gazette.com.



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