Column – ‘Genuine Smithfield Ham’ gone forever, or is it?
Published 5:48 pm Tuesday, February 6, 2024
The Spanish brag of their serrano and the Italians their prosciutto, as well they should. And, in recent years there has been an American version developed next door in Surry County, the Surryano. These salt-cured hams are among the world’s finest.
Also among the world’s finest is the ham that made Smithfield known to the world — the Genuine Smithfield Ham (though it must be cooked, and the others need not be.)
Serranos, prosciuttos and Surryanos have survived and even thrived in a rapidly and vastly changing world. Smithfield’s version, we are now told, has not.
The key to the serrano, prosciutto and Surryano, as it was with the Genuine Smithfield Ham (let’s just call it the “Genuine” for brevity’s sake), is age. Age enhances the flavor of salt-cured ham, so that at six months — the minimum age for a Genuine — the aged flavor is beginning to emerge, tastier than it was at three months, which is the approximate age of the now-popular mild-cured hams. At 12 months, the Genuine becomes a gastronomical challenger to any other. And at 15 months, if you would hang one that long, the long-cure ham is a delicacy to be sought after and remembered.
I’ve eaten plenty of three-month ham. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s like eating a slice of American processed cheese. It’s nice. But the year-old ham is like an aged slice of fine cheddar, and that’s the difference.
That’s what Smithfield Foods is now consigning to history, and the reason is simple. Genuine Smithfield Hams were expensive to cure and store, difficult for most people to cook and serve, and too salty for modern taste buds, which are often comfortable with something a bit more bland.
Sales of the ham that once graced royal tables and made Smithfield famous plummeted in recent years until the company’s bean counters — or, in this case, the bacon and pork chop counters — decided “Genuine” just wasn’t worth the effort. They concluded, probably quite correctly, that the company will never miss the sales, and with multi-billion-dollar annual sales, it would be hard to argue otherwise. It would take a finely tuned accounting to see any losses from it as well, but the accountants apparently did.
Ah, but the cachet! Spin it any way you wish, a three-month ham is not and never will be a long-cure ham. It will always be processed cheese rather than fine cheddar.
That doesn’t mean the ham some of us still salivate over is lost. Quite the contrary. Our “Genuine” ham never was anything more than a full-cut and long-cure Virginia ham, cured in the manner that they have been cured since the earliest days of the Virginia colony. To carry the cachet of “Genuine,” it just had to be cured within the corporate limits of Smithfield — that by legislative fiat. The business-savvy distant antecedents of the present-day company asked the Virginia General Assembly a century ago to protect “Genuine Smithfield Hams” against interlopers near and far. Originally, the hogs had to be raised locally and fed peanuts. That went away when the hog market nationalized, but the process protection remains. Thus, if no one is curing a long-cure ham in Smithfield, there is, by legal definition, no “Genuine” Smithfield ham in the world.
There are, however, plenty of other alternatives.
Darden’s Country Store produces a long-cure, Virginia-style ham that can and has competed alongside the Genuine quite well in recent years. And there other mild alternatives, there are a number of short-cure hams available, including the popular Felts brand in Ivor, Jeb’s Market in Carrollton and a relatively new smokehouse in Surry called Creekside Hams.
But has Smithfield Foods succeeded in killing the company’s oldest product and the town’s most cherished legacy? Not necessarily. It’s true that Smithfield Foods was the only meat packer curing “Genuine” hams in recent decades. The company had bought out all the others. The consolidations began when Foods bought Gwaltney in the early 1980s. In time, V.W. Joyner and Smithfield Ham and Products were folded into the Foods tent, making the company the only supplier of “Genuine” hams.
However, “Genuine Smithfield Ham” isn’t a Foods-owned trademark. It’s a legal definition. There is nothing — except perhaps lack of money and a marginal market — that would prevent some small ham-curing company from opening a smokehouse within the corporate limits of Smithfield and resurrecting the town’s legacy, one long-cure at a time.
The town of Smithfield might even have some industrial land available if someone wanted to try. The former Pinewood Heights community was cleared for future industrial development and is controlled by the town, which would certainly be pleased to see its namesake product produced again if the opportunity ever came along. And I suspect Smithfield Foods wouldn’t squabble over it since the company has discarded its version of the product.
I really don’t expect to ever see a new “Genuine” product produced, but it’s nice to imagine that it could happen.
John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.