A Ham in Everyone’s Stocking

Screw the reindeer, especially Rudolph.  As far as this Southerner is concerned, Santa’s sleigh is drawn by eight wondrous Smithfield hams: Gwaltney, Luter, Edwards, Honey, Porky, Peanut, Red-Eye and Biscuit.

I was sixteen, and my first job was in the England section of Busch Gardens in Williamsburg.  They had me selling hams, peanuts and Virginia products in the Ham Shoppe, sponsored by Gwaltney.

Ham biscuits every day for breakfast.  Heaven.

I had grown up loving Smithfield and country hams during the holidays, when my father would buy a ham for Thanksgiving and another one for Christmas.  Mom would scrub it under warm water, cleaning the exterior of salt and pepper and mold.  Then she’d soak it on one side of the sink for about 12 hours, the water absorbing excess salt from the fat.  The next day, the aroma of cooking ham would permeate the house — an aroma sweeter to me than gingerbread or Christmas candy.

Smithfield ham was, perhaps, the one thing my mother’s cooking techniques could not ruin.

I thought the job at Busch was perfect for me.  And then we went on a field trip to the Gwaltney plant — where we’d see exactly how hams were prepared.

Not what I expected.

After entering the plant by walking underneath a building-long trough through which flooded pig’s blood, then walking past the chute where the pigs were stunned, their throats slit, and their carcasses pushed down to be, well, turned into whatever they would be turned into, I was a little numb.  Then, for the first time, someone explained to me exactly how sausage was made.  More importantly, they told us what exactly went into sausage.

I didn’t touch a piece of sausage for years.

I’m a carnivore at heart, so I got over my sausagephobia; but I never gave up Smithfield hams.  Every year, my home fills with the aroma of cooking ham as I cook one or two for the holidays, depending on the size of the Thanksgiving ham and how much we eventually eat.  Then, if we need another for Christmas . . . well, ’tis the season, ain’t it?

Smithfield ham is my favorite, and the most expensive.  Where country ham is smoked and cured for three to four months, Smithfield ham is smoked and dry cured with salt (and some pepper) for up to a year.  It’s also a longer ham and, because of the extra curing time, has a much richer taste.  My recipe for cooking both types is simple, and based on the recipe in the Virginia Hospitality Cookbook:

• Scrub the mold, salt and pepper off the ham under cool/lukewarm water
• Soak for 8 hours or overnight in cold water
• Preheat the oven to 500 degrees
• Place the ham in a roasting pan

• Pour in 6-7 cups of water (some Southerners use Coca-Cola)
• Seal the pan tightly (I use not only the lid, but several layers of tin foil)
• Cook the ham at 500 degrees for 2 1/2 minutes per pound
• At the end of that period, cut off the oven and leave it closed for three hours.  Don’t mess with the ham — it’s fine
• Turn the oven to 500 again.  When the light goes off, start timing again: 2 1/2 minutes per pound, the same as last time
• At the end of that period, cut off the oven and leave it completely closed for three hours or overnight
• Then:  What are you waiting for?  The ham is done.  Eat!
But now, my world has been overturned.  An article just appeared on this Internet thing you kids are so fond of that has convinced me: I’m doing it all wrong!
The Smithfield ham, cured for a year, doesn’t need to be cooked!  It’s an American prosciutto!
Here — go read this if you don’t believe me.

As for me, I love my ham hot, straight out of the oven.  So this year, I’m going to cook it differently.  500 degrees, 3 1/2 minutes per pound, leave it in the oven for three hours . . . and then take it out.  No overcooking.  I’ll give it a shot.

Next year, maybe I’ll just serve it warm . . .

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