A home-cured ham in Pittsylvania County, Virginia, October 2002.
There is much ado about holiday hams in these parts. Some people even earmark a particular porker as a “pig of promise” when the animal is but a wee shadow of its self-to-be. As autumn leaves fall, planning and anticipation increases. The photo shows a Pittsylvania County home-cured ham drying nicely on an October morn. (The mold on it is normal and desirable, as in certain cheeses, though the mold should be scrubbed or cut off before using.)
Incidentally, if someone says “You're eating high on the hog,” i.e. ”fancy,” the expression actually is based on the fact that when a freshly slaughtered hog is hung by its rear feet, the ham, which is considered to be the best part, is the highest point on the carcass.
When a pig has an itch he usually scratches with his right hind hoof because most swine are “right-footed.” This extra exercise strengthens/toughens the right back leg, so true ham connoisseurs prefer the more tender left hams. (The ham is the thigh.)
Exterior mold, visible here, is normal.
Once a hog and its thigh have parted company, there are several ways the ham can be “cured” (a type of preservation). Salt alone can be used, or a “sugar cure,” after which the meat is aged. Many hams go through an additional smoking process. The steps may take anywhere from 4 to 12 months. To check for spoilage during the aging process, experienced “curemasters” puncture hams with an ice pick and sniff the pick for any “off” odor. Some experts can even judge the meat by thumping it with an ice pick handle. A bad ham “thunks” differently from an acceptable one.
Once your country ham is ready to be prepared, you scrub it, soak it, simmer it, and bake it. Finally, the pleasure of eating!
Oh, if you don't consume the whole ham on one occasion (that would be unlikely), the leftovers (or the whole just-cooked country ham) should be wrapped tightly in brown paper or aluminum foil and refrigerated. Do not use plastic wrap because it holds in moisture and speeds up spoilage. Cooked, cured, properly-wrapped ham will keep refrigerated up to six weeks. If fact, some old-timers claim that “a ham can't be too old for frying,” and one gentleman speaks enthusastically of frying up some two-year-old slices.
This European wild boar, photographed in 1976 at the Booker T. Washington National Monument, Moneta, Virginia, is reminiscent of hogs early Americans used to establish the holiday ham tradition.
Available directly from the publisher, and at museums throughout the United States.
Coming Home for Christmas Cookbook
Sweet Memories of Christmas
Colonial Christmas Cooking
Victorian Christmas Celebration Cookbook
Civil War Celebrations
Copyright © 1976–2003 Patricia B. Mitchell.