The New Frontier of Country Ham
The Turning Point
According to the strictest definition of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a country ham is a hind leg of a pig, aged at least seventy days. The differences between American country ham and Spanish Iberico or Serrano ham or Italian prosciutto are subtle. They mostly have to do with what a pig ate, whether the meat was smoked, and how a ham is sliced. Serrano refers to the highland region where these famous Spanish hams are made; the word means “mountain” in Spanish. Iberico hams come from black Iberian pigs from southern Spain and are known for their high fat content. Most American country hams come from pigs raised on corn. And the famous Italian Prosciutto di Parma is dry-cured ham from the Parma region of Tuscany, where farmers often fatten the pigs on cheese curds.
Why does anyone dry-cure a ham in the first place? Think of a country ham as the porcine equivalent of beef jerky or dried apples. Salt-curing removes water until there’s not enough moisture left for microbes to grow in the meat, a vital step in the days before refrigeration. With the advent of refrigeration came “city hams,” the tender, spiral-sliced versions you see anchoring holiday sideboards. City hams get wet-cured, pumped full of brine and then boiled or lightly smoked. Because they can go from fresh to ready-to-eat in just a few days, they’re cheaper to produce. But a country-cured ham, though rendered unnecessary by refrigeration, simply tastes better.
Modern life, however, has not been kind to the American country ham. Starting after World War II, industrial processors gobbled up family curing houses. To cut costs, large plants compressed the dry-curing process, whittling it down to the USDA’s seventy-day minimum, even though hams traditionally cured for at least six months. By the late twentieth century, the price of country ham dove to 99 cents a pound. What had once been the pride of the Southern table became a supermarket loss leader. Fresh out of the University of Richmond with a business degree in the late 1970s, Sam Edwards worked his tail off navigating those currents—making deals and cutting prices, only to see his company’s margins get thinner, while profits didn’t budge. He soon faced a choice: cut corners on quality; go out of business, like dozens of family-owned curing companies around the South; or veer off in a completely different direction. “Ever since then,” Edwards says, “I’ve been going the other way.”
Edwards realized that there was only one way he could compete against the big players, who were doing to pork what Perdue did to poultry: He needed to appeal to a clientele who would pay more for artisanal meats. Back in 1983, he urged his skeptical father to buy booth space at the national Fancy Foods Show. The very name was off-putting to a hardworking ham man from rural Virginia, and for a long time the father sat on the fence. The flip of a coin settled it, thus beginning an annual trek to the specialty foods show and the transition to the ancient art of high-quality, raw-shaved meats.
“I think Sam was a visionary in that he understood that only one guy wins the price game,” says Patrick Martins, the founder of Slow Food U.S.A. and owner of a Brooklyn-based company that sells humanely raised, hormone-free meats. “So you either try to be that guy or you try to add value and quality. That takes guts.”
Therein lies the new twist in the old story of country ham. The current passion for all foods local and slow is helping swing the pendulum away from shortcuts and cheap hams, and producers like Edwards—along with Nancy Newsom in Kentucky and Allan Benton in Tennessee—are getting their day in the sun. “I don’t know that there is a technology,” says Martins, “that does what Sam does.”