Food & Drink

A Virginia Ham Revival

Three years after the blaze that destroyed Edwards Virginia Smokehouse, third-generation cure master Sam Edwards III is rebuilding his family business, one ham at a time

photo: Courtesy of Sammy Edwards

Sam Edwards III, right, with his father S. Wallace Edwards Jr. in the Edwards' Surry, Virginia, facility in 1983.

Sam Edwards III will be the first to admit it—the past three years have been hard.

photo: Courtesy of Sammy Edwards

Sam Edwards III.

On January 19, 2016, his family’s decades-old Edwards Virginia Smokehouse went up in flames, leaving the facility destroyed. “In my lifetime, I’d never heard of it happening—a fire wiping out an entire ham house,” says Edwards, the third-generation cure master to run the business his grandfather founded in 1926. In the immediate aftermath, Harper’s Country Hams of Clinton, Kentucky, was one of the first to step in, offering to take over Edwards’ production until the company got back on its feet in their Surry, Virginia, home base. Almost exactly a year later, the unthinkable happened again: Harper’s plant caught fire, too, and both families’ inventories were lost.

photo: Courtesy of Sammy Edwards

The Edwards Virginia Smokehouse facilities in Surry, Virginia, caught fire on January 19, 2016, incinerating $2.5 million worth of pork products.

Even in the face of that kind of devastation, Edwards hasn’t wavered in his determination to restore his historic operation to its former glory. Shortly after the fire, it became clear to Edwards that his insurance policy had underestimated the cost of a potential rebuild. The company delivered only a fraction of the amount needed to reconstruct the facility.   Edwards sued, claiming that the company had knowingly left his business underinsured. The Virginia Supreme Court will take the case this fall, which may be the turning point the Edwards family has hoped for. In the meantime, production has continued in smokehouses across the South, where partners help fill orders for Edwards’ bacon, sausage, and a variety of hams, including his  Surryano (a country ham that’s aged for more than 400 days until it resembles famed Spanish Serrano hams, and long regarded as some of the finest cured pork in the country).

photo: Courtesy of Sammy Edwards

Historic photos of the smokehouse that survived the fire.

Right now, the company is gearing up for Easter, when hams of all kinds grace sideboards across the South. The boneless petite country ham has been Edwards’ longtime best seller, and this year looks to be no different. Orders for spiral-sliced bone-in smoked sweet and bone-in glazed country hams take a close second. “We’ve had hundreds of letters from folks sharing stories about the relationship their own families have with Edwards,” he says. “It means something to people.” Still, the company is producing only sixty percent of what it could before the fire.

photo: Courtesy of Sammy Edwards

Country ham, hickory smoked sausage, and country bacon are among the variety of pork products the company still offers.

“All twenty or so members of the National Country Ham Association have reached out and offered whatever they could,” Edwards says. “We’ve had smokehouses in Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Alabama help us through this process by using our recipe in their facilities, and that’s what’s kept us alive.” Replicating the signature Edwards flavor (the “funk,” as Edwards calls it) has been difficult, but he’s grateful for the helping hands.

“In the country ham world, so many of us are family businesses, passed on through the generations,” he says. “If it weren’t for our friends in the industry, we wouldn’t have been able to survive.”


Order  online via edwardsvaham.com by Tuesday, April 16, to receive your ham by Easter Sunday (April 21) via Edwards’ free standard shipping.


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