The New Frontier of Country Ham
How a third-generation ham master in Virginia took a cue from old-world Europe and reinvented the South’s most humble pork product
In 1991, a Virginia chef named Jimmy Sneed gave a seven-pound Wigwam country ham to a globe-trotting hairstylist. Sneed thought the ham would make a distinctive house gift for his friend, who had been invited to spend the holidays at the Aspen home of Rafaella De Laurentiis, daughter of the renowned film producer Dino De Laurentiis. A Southern delicacy, the Wigwam had been lovingly dry-cured and smoked by S. Wallace Edwards & Sons, a revered third-generation company across the James River from Jamestown. Unbeknownst to Sneed, the ham came with cooking instructions: Soak overnight, add fresh water, simmer eight hours, remove skin, trim fat, glaze with brown sugar, and bake for thirty minutes at three hundred degrees. The Wigwam, which is especially long with a boomerang curve at the knuckle, wouldn’t fit in De Laurentiis’s biggest pot. So the houseguest drove to a hardware store, bought a saw, cut the hock off, and simmered the ham for a day, flooding the posh villa with the reek of boiled salt pork. To Sneed, though, the odor was merely evidence of a sacrilege: boiling away the nuanced flavors and textures painstakingly achieved only after months of salt-pampering, smoking, and patience. You might as well heat up a skillet and scramble caviar.
“This is one of the most glorious dried prosciutto-style hams I’d ever tasted in my life,” recalls Sneed, who trained under the late Jean-Louis Palladin, whom some considered the greatest French chef in America. “All he needed to do was shave it. When he told me the story, I went crazy.”
A few months later, the chef retold the story while addressing a crowd of foodies at a Julia Child–sponsored event in Washington, D.C. Just as Sneed lifted the cotton sack that had held the meat, Sam Wallace Edwards III, scion of the family business that had cured the ham in question, entered the room.
“These are the morons,” said Sneed, pointing to the Edwards label, “who put cooking instructions on a dry-cured ham.”
It is possible to look back on this encounter as marking a kind of shift in the illustrious history of a humble Southern classic—a recognition that country ham, that salty mainstay of Huddle House menus, might deserve more adoration than just something destined to be served with redeye gravy or slapped between two halves of a buttermilk biscuit. Today, thanks to a renewed appreciation for regional American foods, country ham is enjoying a comeback, bouncing back from an unmistakable decline. A handful of cure masters, farmers, and chefs are redefining and garnering new respect for it, while reviving cherished traditions. Now the backwoods staple is just as likely to show up dry-shaved, prosciutto-style, in white-tablecloth restaurants in New York and San Francisco as it is tucked between dinner rolls at a wedding reception in Richmond.
This shift did not happen overnight, however. Despite their inauspicious first meeting, Edwards and Sneed eventually became friends. But for years the cure master ignored the gregarious chef’s good-natured rebukes about cooking instructions on hams. For one thing, federal law at the time required raw hams, even fully cured ones, to come with cooking instructions. And besides, Edwards’s family was in the country ham business, thank you very much, and country ham was meant to be skillet-fried. Then one day about ten years ago, Tim Harris, a Williamsburg, Virginia, importer of gourmet foods from Spain, offered Edwards a taste of a dry-cured, acorn-fattened Iberico ham. At the time, Edwards was charging $75 for a whole Wigwam ham, his company’s finest offering. Harris’s Ibericos were bringing $1,500. Each.
When the wafer-thin slice of meat known as black gold hit Edwards’s tongue, Chef Sneed’s know-it-all remonstrations finally made sense.
That, Edwards thought, is nothing but fancy country ham.