My friend Steve rang awhile ago to tell me that, according to Garden&Gun magazine, country ham is ‘in’. ‘I swear,’ he said, ‘chefs in New York are serving it as antipasto! It’s the new prosciutto! I drove straight to Kentucky and found an old man selling country hams by the side of the road and brought one home and hung it on my back porch!’
Steve is getting into food in a big way, which accounts for his enthusiasm. He is on something called ‘the Nashville diet,’ which is a bit like Atkins, but the protein should normally be battered and fried.
A few weeks later, the ham was still hanging there, and the French bassett, Momo, had taken to spending his afternoons sitting underneath it, staring upwards with a forlorn expression. ‘I don’t know what to do next,’ Steve confessed. ‘I think it needs to cure longer, but I’m worried that it’s going to go bad.’
So when the opportunity came up last Sunday, we decided to join a hog butchering and curing workshop at the Smileys’ farm in Ridgetop, Tennessee. The Smileys are a fixture at the Nashville Farmer’s Market, which the director is trying to make more sophisticated. I think you could fairly describe a hog slaughter as a high risk strategy to achieve that objective. When I phoned to ask about it, Troy Smiley told me that for $35 he would take us ‘from the hog to the ham’ — except that he wouldn’t shoot him in front of us because of health and safety.
Troy and his daddy, Ted, have been curing hams in Ridgetop for decades. The slaughterhouse is a small, mostly unmechanized, family operation. Troy wouldn’t let me take pictures in there, in case I had some sort of political agenda. I can see that; it was pretty full on. After he shot the hog (behind a closed door) he showed us how to drain the blood, scald him to make it easier to get the hair off, and hang him up by the tendons in his rear legs. After Troy gutted him, Ted came in and butchered him the country way, taking a hatchet to the backbone (nowadays you do it with an electric saw). He carried the hams out to the smokehouse, where he salted them and showed us the hams that are already curing.
Ted fried up the tenderloin, along with some country ham and homemade sausage for us to try. He also made a pot of beans, and the grandkids made some cornbread. Troy was right, there is a big difference between fresh, home-butchered meat and the stuff you buy in the store. And those beans were delicious. The country ham? Well it didn’t taste like prosciutto, and Ted and Troy didn’t have much idea how to make it that way. But I have to tell you, it was pretty damn good.
Troy Smiley’s White Beans and Ham
You dice up some country ham real small
and fry it good and add some cut up onions
and then you add a big can of white beans,
because that’s just as good as making them
from dried, and then you cook it all in a big
pot long enough to taste good but not so
long that it all goes mushy.
© Copyright 2011, Southern Dysfunction