Hams earned their place on Thanksgiving table

Published 4:50 pm Tuesday, November 23, 2021

A ham for Thanksgiving? Of course, there was.

Many hams hung in a farmer’s smokehouse during a typical year in the 1950s.

Not just hams, of course. There were shoulders, jowls, heads, bacon slabs, link sausage and dandoodles, all of them important sources of food during the year.

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Hams, though, were the royalty of a Virginia smokehouse. All of them were laid down in salt in late January or early February, then hung to be smoked and aged, all at the same time. You thus might think they would be identical, or at least almost so, but they were not.

Hams started out the same, but like fine wine, they improved with age. That’s not to say a cured and smoked ham was bad at any time just because it hadn’t been fully aged. It just wasn’t as flavorful early in its life.

For the first six months, we considered a ham “new,” but new or not, several of them were cooked and eaten in late spring and early summer. There was even an informal contest in our family to see which farm had produced the most flavorful ham by the Fourth of July.

Hams coming out of the smokehouse in the fall were beginning to earn more respect. Today, a ham that age would be considered “old.” Back then, it was just beginning to earn that title in time for Thanksgiving, and though a turkey was the centerpiece on the Thanksgiving table, that celebratory dinner was not complete without a platter of ham to complement the bird.

The ham cooked for Christmas had reached a state of perfection that earned it respect as a true Virginia Ham, for it was then that the telltale white flecks of crystallized amino acid began to appear when a ham was sliced. They were the sure sign that a ham was coming of age.

Notice that I refer to it as a Virginia, not a Smithfield, Ham. For the uninitiated, a Smithfield Ham is nothing more than a Virginia Ham cured within the corporate limits of our beloved town. It’s a trademark, a legal designation sought by town fathers and imposed by a benevolent General Assembly a century ago, rather than a unique curing method.

As the calendar year ended, a Virginia smokehouse was beginning to look pretty bare. All the shoulders had usually been consumed. They were thinner than hams and their meat thus became harder with age. They were in their prime at about six months and thus eaten ahead of some hams.

As the smokehouse emptied, the cycle would begin anew with a fresh lot of pork laid down in salt. But high in the rafters there remained a couple of hams, held back to be eaten in late winter and early spring. From these remaining legs of pork came the Easter Ham, that cherished product that surpassed all others of the previous year.

Every ham taken down from the smokehouse was given the “ice pick” test. An ice pick was driven in deeply alongside the bone. When extracted, its aroma told whether the ham had survived the seasons. You knew instantly whether that ham was “good.” By Christmas, that aroma had itself become mouthwatering.

Virginia hams were once found wherever hogs were raised — and hogs were raised on virtually all of the farms hereabouts. Even a farmer who no longer raised hogs back then would often buy a hog or two from his neighbor, help with the slaughter and then have his pork cured alongside the neighbor’s. We hung hams for three other families besides ours.

We butchered and cured the meat from six or seven hogs a year. That was 14 hams and as many shoulders, as well as large quantities of bacon and other cuts. As tastes have changed and as we have learned — many of us, at considerable cost to our health — not to consume excessive amounts of salt, the old cure and the old hams it produced have become scarce. Our immediate family now buys one true Virginia ham a year, and that for Christmas. We are healthier without all that salt meat, but oh, was it good.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is j.branchedwards@gmail.com.