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The Wilder Shores of Ham

You Can Take the Ham Out of the Country, but. . .

March 23, 1997

A hundred years ago, all ham was country ham. Salting, nearly always followed by smoking, was how you preserved pork. It dried the meat out and made it less hospitable to bacteria.

With modern transportation and refrigeration, ham-making is no longer a necessity, and ham has become just a sort of flavored meat, like corned beef. Processors have devised ways of making ham that don't require long treatment, either by them or on the part of the consumer. Instead of salting a ham for weeks and then hanging it for months to cure, they can inject brine right into the meat to cure it in weeks.

But some people still prefer the stronger, saltier, funkier, more complex aroma of the old-time ham, and some ham makers--particularly in the South--are just too stubborn to change, so country ham is still made.

Most mail-order hams come from two areas. There's the Smithfield area of southeastern Virginia along with nearby parts of North Carolina and Maryland. Then there are the hams of the Ozarks of northern Arkansas and southern Missouri and neighboring parts of western Kentucky and Tennessee.

A country ham is ready to eat if all you want to do is cut shavings of raw ham and use them as a flavoring, prosciutto fashion. But if you want to bake a ham, you have to soak it and probably boil it as well. Baking is actually optional, but it adds the traditional glaze.

The basic principle of soaking is to soak a ham aged less than 1 year for 24 hours, an older ham for 36 or 48 hours. Then cover with cold water (because a whole ham is too big for most stock pots, many people remove the ham hock with a hacksaw) and simmer 4 hours.

When the ham is cool enough to handle, the skin will be easy to peel off. Trim away the fat with a sharp knife, leaving a layer about 1/4 inch thick; trim it aggressively, because there's more fat than you suspect.

If you want to serve a country ham as a main course, remember that it's much saltier and stronger than city ham, so be sure to serve sweet and starchy side dishes to avoid wear and tear on the palate. The most traditional accompaniment is fresh biscuits. Country ham also works beautifully in any dish in which ham serves as a flavoring for other ingredients.

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