Genuine Smithfield Ham competitors see opportunity following brand’s demise

Published 8:16 pm Monday, January 29, 2024

Ask what’s the closest alternative to Smithfield Foods’ recently discontinued trademark Genuine Smithfield Ham and you’ll get multiple answers.

“We don’t think of ours as the next best thing; we are the best thing,” said Dee Dee Darden, whose family-owned Darden’s Country Store just outside the Fortune 500 company’s namesake town has for three generations used the same six-month, salt-cure technique codified in a nearly century-old state law.

Jeb Bonnet, owner of Jeb’s Market in nearby Carrollton, says the same of his own efforts to keep alive the traditional smokehouse method that distinguishes saltier country hams from the cuts of meat you’d find at your nearest grocery store. Ask him who’s the best and he’ll tell you, enthusiastically, “I think that Jeb the Butcher Hams are!”

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The now 98-year-old Edwards-brand country ham, a longtime competitor of the Genuine Smithfield brand, is also seeing a boost in business more than 1,000 miles west of its Surry County birthplace under the ownership of California, Missouri-based Burgers Smokehouse.

Then there’s Smithfield Foods itself, which asserts its mild-cure country ham now being produced in its 2019-built smokehouse in town that originally housed the manufacture of Genuine Smithfield Hams, is remarkably similar to the product it replaced. The only difference, according to Smithfield Vice President of Corporate Affairs Jim Monroe, is the mild-cure’s four-month aging process, down from the six required under Virginia’s 1926 law defining what can be branded as “Genuine Smithfield.”


Darden’s Country Store

Darden contends the additional two months of aging can sometimes make all the difference.

“They have a different flavor every month as we go,” she said.

Darden’s method has gone largely unchanged for more than 70 years. It’s virtually identical to the six-month “long-cure, dry salt method” described in the 1926 law but can’t be labeled as Genuine Smithfield due to the law’s requirement that any so-branded ham be cured and aged entirely within Smithfield’s town limits. Her store and smokehouse are located just outside the town limits at the corner of Bowling Green and Carroll Bridge roads.

“We learned from my husband, Tommy, who learned from his daddy, Seward, which is the way that everybody did it on the farm,” Dee Dee said. “So it’s really not a recipe or a secret.”

Darden still uses the family’s circa-1952 smokehouse, which retains much of its original cinderblock foundation, wood siding and rafters from which the hams hang to dry.

“Smoke is a matter of choice or taste,” Dee Dee said. “We like to use hickory and applewood when it’s available and smoke it for a couple of days.”

But it’s the salt, not the smoke, that does most of the work.

“The main thing is just letting them age and dry out,” Darden said.

“When anybody had a hog killing,” Seward would obtain uncured hams from participating farmers, Dee Dee said. Years later, her father-in-law started buying hams from Smithfield Foods to ensure the store’s offerings were already inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Darden’s Country Store to this day obtains its uncured hams from Smithfield Foods.

“They have been very good to us,” Darden said of Smithfield’s anchor employer.

Most of Darden’s customers in Seward’s day were rural farmers who would buy groceries and fertilizer on credit, then settle their accounts months later when the harvest came in.

“Back then, you know, there were no Walmarts or big grocery stores,” Dee Dee said.

It was the golden age of Virginia’s country stores, which have now largely disappeared. She credits her store’s survival to the family’s decision in the 1990s to pivot from uncooked hams to cooked ones and other ready-made foodstuffs like chicken pot pies and pimento cheese spread.

“We started cooking it and selling it by the pound, and that’s the way most of our customers buy it now because they don’t need a whole ham, they just need a pound or two at a time,” Dee Dee said.

It also spared new generations of customers from having to learn the multi-day process to properly – and safely – cook a Smithfield ham.

“They’re coated in black pepper, so you have to, you know, take them down, wash them,” Dee Dee said. “They do have some mold on them, sometimes, so you scrub the mold off, scrub the black pepper off, and then basically, you just put it in a pot and boil it for about 4 to 4 1/2 hours depending on the size of the ham. Then you take it out of the pot when it’s warm and then you start to de-bone it. You take the fat off … you wrap it in plastic and get it really good and tight. Then, the next day, after it’s chilled, then you can put it on the meat slicer and slice it really thin, so it’s a several-day process.”

“We’re used to doing it, so it doesn’t take us that long,” Dee Dee noted. “I can cook about eight or 10 hams at a time in the pot; that’s better than when we first started when we were cooking two at a time.”


Smithfield Foods mild-cure

Smithfield’s mild-cure country ham, much like the Dardens’, is smoked and coated in black pepper. Like its Genuine Smithfield predecessor, it comes wrapped in a cloth sack.

“Surface mold is also common and is in no way injurious (like fine cheeses mold in the aging process),” states the product’s description on Smithfield Foods’ now-defunct Smithfield Marketplace website that previously allowed the buying and shipping of Genuine Smithfield Hams and other products online. The website ceased facilitating sales last October but remains viewable.


Jeb’s Market

Bonnet touts his hams as being cured in a more modern facility.

“I have the capacity to produce 4,000 to 5,000 hams right now in conditioned spaces that are metal coolers,” Bonnet said.

Bonnet, who’s worked in the meat industry on and off since the mid-1970s and has operated his butcher shop off Carrollton Boulevard since 2001, notes his hams were recently used in a Jan. 12-published study by USDA researchers in the Journal of Food Protection on the inactivation of listeria and salmonella during cooking.

“Country hams are shelf-stable because water is removed during the curing process,” Bonnet explained. “The outside of the ham is hard and dry and does not let water and salt exchange easily, so you need to cut off the hock and face-cut the sirloin end of the ham to expose the soft meat. Salt will easily purge from this soft meat.”

His too require a multi-day preparation process ahead of being ready to cook and eat.

“The hams need to be soaked in fresh water under refrigeration for food safety,” Bonnet said. “Change the water daily. Usually, a whole ham will take one to three days of soaking depending upon your salt tolerance. Rinse and scrub your ham after soaking.”

The next step is par-boiling the ham and cutting off the skin and some of the fat after the ham has been removed from the water.

“You can then bake the ham on a rack in a roasting pot, covered,” Bonnet said. “Try to avoid direct aluminum foil contact because the salts in the ham will dissolve it. Or you can boil the ham until done. The water can be plain or flavored with spices or sweeteners.”

Bonnet declined to share specifics on curing, citing a proprietary process, but said “we do like mid-western pork.”

“Remember that commercially raised hogs have a different minimum cooking temperature than pasture-raised hogs,” Bonnet said. “Commercial minimum is 145ºF for 5 minutes. Pasture hogs need to be well done.”

“We are a USDA-inspected meat processor that produces products in five of the nine inspected meat categories,” Bonnet added. “This includes country cured hams.”


Edwards Ham

Sam Edwards III sold the fourth-generation Edwards ham brand to Burgers in 2021, five years after a devastating fire destroyed the Edwards family’s smokehouse in Surry.

“I met Sam back in the mid-‘80s on a tour of some country ham plants, one of which was Smithfield,” said Burgers Smokehouse CEO Steven Burger.

During that tour, he also met Charles Henry Gray, Smithfield Foods’ then-CEO Joseph Luter III’s legendary assistant and namesake of the Charles Henry Gray Ham, a Smithfield ham with a secret brown sugar seasoning mixture developed by Gray.

Burgers, like Edwards and Darden’s, is a multigenerational family-owned business. 

“My grandfather started selling country ham off the farm in central Missouri in the 1920s,” Burger said.

The company’s headquarters mark the western edge of what Burger calls the “country ham belt,” a region with similar summer temperatures ideal for the aging of smoked hams that begins in eastern Virginia and North Carolina and spans through central Missouri.

Burger says the ham that’s most similar to what Foods had branded as its Genuine Smithfield Ham is the Edwards brand Wigwam Ham, which is naturally smoked and aged for a minimum of 200 days, or just under seven months. Another option is the Surryano, which he said is made from “heritage pork” from Berkshire breed pigs descended from those that originated in the shire of Berks in England during the 17th century.

What’s different about the Edwards brand from Genuine Smithfield is it’s not the long cut of meat from butt to shank that the company and Dardens use.

When Smithfield Foods suspended online shipping of hams last fall, “we immediately saw an increase in our business,” Burger said.

Smithfield Foods contends consumer preferences have shifted away from the Genuine Smithfield Ham. Burger says while that may be true for a global meatpacking giant like Smithfield, it remains “a very viable market” for smaller outlets like his, “and one that we’re anxious to keep alive and promote as best we can.”

Burgers, Steven said, became the first country ham plant in the United States to be federally inspected, and at the company’s own urging.

“My grandfather, back in 1956, actually went to Washington,” Burger said. “At the time there was no regulation. He felt it was important for the industry to be regulated.”

Burgers, he noted, is sponsoring the ongoing restoration of a smokehouse at founding father and President George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, which was built in the mid-1770s and was last restored during the 1950s.

“I think this year we’re going to see that work completed,” Burger said.


R.M. Felts Packing Co.

R.M. Felts Packing Co. has been based since 1958 in the former Ivor Ham Co. plant on General Mahone Boulevard in neighboring Southampton County. A 2022 feature on the generational family-run business, published in Slice of Smithfield Magazine, notes when the hams arrive in Ivor, they’re rubbed in salt by hand and begin a 90-day process designed to mimic the smokehouse curing process.

The Felts family smokes their hams with a combination of oak and oak sawdust. The hams lose about 25% of their weight during the curing process and need to maintain the correct salt and Ph standards to be certified as country hams. In the climate-controlled building, different rooms reflect the seasonal changes of the traditional curing process. The winter room is cooler while the summer room is heated to 85 degrees with matching humidity.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Feb. 2 to include R.M. Felts Packing Co. as another local competitor of the Genuine Smithfield Ham.