Column – Battle of the Smithfields reverberates four decades later
Published 5:13 pm Tuesday, November 7, 2023
Smithfield residents and businesses have always been ready and eager to defend the town’s signature product — the Smithfield Ham. We even keep a video camera at the Isle of Wight Museum watching over what is ostensibly the world’s oldest ham — just in case it decides to run away or something.
That protective nature was ratcheted up in 1985 when a North Carolina country lawyer, ham producer and future politician, eager to promote his newly acquired ham company, challenged Smithfield Foods to a ham tasting contest.
That challenge set in motion a round of generally good-natured sparring between Smithfield, Virginia, and Smithfield, North Carolina, located in Johnston County, and home of Johnston County Hams.
Smithfield, N.C., lawyer Leo Daughtry had purchased Johnston County Hams in 1983 and decided two years later to liven up the community’s Ham and Yam Festival by inviting Smithfield Packing Co. to a taste-off.
The festival had been held for some years as the “Yam Festival,” and local residents had long since declared Smithfield, N.C., the Yam Capital of the World.
Daughtry had bigger ideas. Why not add hams to yams, challenge “the giant” ham producer and soak up whatever publicity might ensue. It turned out to be quite a good idea for Daughtry and didn’t do any serious or lasting harm to Smithfield, Va.
Daughtry, who would later become a veteran North Carolina state legislator, asked then-Gov. James Martin to issue the challenge to Smithfield, Va. He agreed, and sent a letter to Virginia Gov. Charles Robb, who passed it down to Smithfield Packing.
Smithfield Foods Chairman Joseph W. Luter III accepted the challenge to enter some hams. His corporate assistant, Charles Henry Gray, was placed in charge of handling the competition on this end.
Gray had earlier developed a recipe for preparing Smithfield Hams that would eventually bear his name. He prepared one by that recipe and took it to Carolina, where it walked away with the “cooked ham” competition.
Uncooked hams didn’t fare as well. The judges didn’t like the fact that Virginia country hams smelled like pepper. Virginia hams have always smelled like pepper because they are rubbed in it before they were hung in a smokehouse to discourage insects. The pepper has to be washed off before hams are cooked, but the judges in North Carolina just sliced into the hams and declared they had a pepper aroma and taste.
Smithfield Packing returned to the contest a second time and Gray’s ham won again in the cooked division. Isle of Wight County farmer A. Dwight Doggett joined the fun by entering a long-cure ham from his private country smokehouse and won the uncooked, long cure division, besting Smithfield Packing.
Judging North Carolina and Virginia hams together was naturally difficult. Carolina hams and Virginia hams are both cured slowly in salt, then hung to age, but Virginians introduce smoke to the smokehouse after the hams are removed from the dry-rubbed salt. In North Carolina, hams are aged without smoke. They are thus two different products.
The ham competition ran its course after a few years, though the Ham and Yam Festival continued. (Johnston County Hams closed in 2019, its demise attributed to declining demand for dry cured ham.)
The contest benefited Smithfield, Va., in an unexpected way. Members of the Isle of Wight Chamber of Commerce attended the festival in 1986 as guests of the North Carolinians. They came back and began talking of ways to create a local festival that, by all rights, should be superior to the North Carolina event.
Out of those discussions came the Smithfield Ham & Gourmet Food Festival, an upscale food festival that was held on the Aberdeen Farm, owned by Luter. Various pork dishes, as well as seafood, were served up to festival-goers beginning in May 1987.
In addition to dining delicacies, the festivals featured performers whose careers had peaked by then but were still popular. Pat Boone led off in 1987, followed by Johnny Rivers and the Platters, as well as Conway Twitty during later festivals.
The festival was first staged by the Chamber of Commerce, then by county parks and recreation, working with a consortium of civic clubs, all of which hoped to find in the festival the goose that would lay their golden eggs. Unfortunately, the Gourmet Festival was never a big money-maker and within a few years was losing money. It ended in 1994.
Some years later, an enterprising and talented promoter, Gina Ippolito, successfully harnessed civic club energy and labor far more effectively to man large festivals at Windsor Castle Park. Those festivals, staged by Smithfield VA Events, continue and today have contributed well over $1.5 million to local charities and projects.
It’s hardly been a straight line, but the drive to have profitable festivals here might well be traced back to an obscure ham processor in Smithfield, N.C., who threw down the gauntlet to take on our champion in a duel of tastebuds nearly 40 years ago.
John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is email@example.com.