Hanging in all their glory at the Alexandria Country Fair this year were the beautiful Kentucky Country Hams of the students of the statewide 4H Ham Project. This year’s winner in Campbell County was Samantha Webster. Of the 17 participants in the months long program, which is set to revive the dying craft with the next generation, more than half are girls. Last year’s winner of the Country Ham project was another gal, California, Kentucky native, Deborah Myers, who also won the Kentucky State Fair 4 H Ham Project. After learning the process hands-on, the students submit their hams at the Kentucky State Fair and then show them at the Alexandria Fair in August. They are judged on aroma, size and cleanliness, and shape. The students must also give a presentation on one of two topics – country ham history or how to market country ham. The program was started in 1995 by Bill Robertson Jr., of Finchville Farms Country Hams. The program has grown from 42 students in two counties to now over 700 students statewide.
In Campbell County, the hams are hand rubbed with a cure of salt, brown sugar, black and red pepper. But every family in Kentucky has its own secret spice blend. Some may use mustard in the rub, or paprika or even herbs. The state is split down the center as to smoke or not – West Kentucky hams are (cold) smoked, Eastern Kentucky hams are not. Most of the commercial producers in Kentucky do smoke their hams with hickory wood. Only one commercial producer in Kentucky smokes with the addition of sassafras wood.
So seeing these beautiful hams made me remember how long it had been since I’ve actually had Kentucky Country Ham. I do remember the beautiful earthy, barny flavor but I don’t even remember where I had it. The interesting thing is that most country ham is shipped out of the state to high end restaurants in NYC and California, who are using and appreciating it as American born and bred charcuterie. There are only a few farm to table type restaurants in Greater Cincinnati, like Metrople and Commonwealth Bistro, who are doing anything with country ham. One of the best ways to experience country ham is uncooked, thin sliced, with a dollop of pimento cheese in a beaten biscuit.
Unfortunately, most of us don’t know how to properly cook country ham. It’s usually cooked way too long to the consistency of shoe leather and served as a steak with badly made red eye gravy. Country ham doesn’t need to be cooked much at all – only a few minutes, especially thinly sliced – only until the fat first becomes transparent. Country ham also has the bad rap of being way too salty. Again this comes down to bad preparation – not soaking it enough to remove the salts. Some producers use saltpeter or nitrite to cut down on the amount of salt needed for the cure. Salt is essentially competing with bacteria to be the first to get to the bone. If salt wins, you get a beautifully cured ham.
It also comes to the aging – with a year or more of aging, a country ham doesn’t even need to be cooked – it can be sliced and served as such like prosciutto – that’s when the best of the beautiful flavors or country ham come out – notes of tobacco, hickory, or even sassafras, as seen with those few producers who smoke with a combination of woods . Each aging barn or smokehouse has its own native bacteria that give different subtleties of flavor. The aging during the ‘summer sweats’ as they’re called, contribute the most of the flavor. The younger hams under a year, are the only ones that should ever be cooked. They still have a bit of moisture and are not as hard as the longer aged hams.
I am a hamvangelist. But in our Queen City, it can be found mostly in the German form, like the Westphalian ham, or even the cottage ham, which isn’t really ham at all. With the recent popularity of charcuterie in restaurants, people will pay top dollar for an Italian proscuito or Spanish Iberrico cured ham. But we forget that we have a centuries old tradition in artfully cured hams right across the river in our Kentucky cured hams. But why is that?
There’s the fact that it’s a very laborious art. From the trimming of fat, the hand rubbing of salt and spices, to the hanging, the smoking, and the constant monitoring and packaging, there’s a lot of steps in the process. The USDA regulations created in the 1980s have not made this process any easier or less expensive. Then there are the large producers like Harper’s of Clinton, Kentucky, who semi-automate the process and produce on the order of 200,000 hams a year, where small producers like Scott Hams of Greenville, Kentucky, or Father’s Country Hams of Bremen, Kentucky, produce on the order of 5000 a year. The large producers have an upper leg on economies of scale and do a lot better job of marketing themselves. Harper’s former owner, Curtis Harper, took on a persona like Boss Hog of the Dukes of Hazard, calling himself “Boss Ham” and filming commercials with the slogan, “Never Fear, Boss Ham is Here!”
Although Triggs County, where the annual Ham Fest happens, is considered the capital of Kentucky Country Hams, we used to have more northern Kentucky-local producers. One was Taylor Farms Country Hams, founded in the 1950s by Edwin Wiley Taylor in Harrison County, Cynthiana, Kentucky, just northwest of Lexington. They lasted until the 1980s, when Edwin’s grandson, Michael Taylor sold and moved to Florida. But before selling he experimented with a country ham fast food concept called The Olde Smokehouse, which had restaurants in Moorehead, and in the Shakertown Village in Pleasanthill, Kentucky.
C. Michael Taylor, last owner of Taylor Country Hams in Cynthiana, Kentucky, in the 1980s.
For centuries, even before the birth of the state in 1792, families who came to Kentucky from Virginia had been smoking and salt curing country hams for their families out of necessity. Before refrigeration, salt curing was the way families were able to preserve meat, especially pork. Nearly every one of the eight commercial producers left in Kentucky has an origin story like that. The Newsom family of Colonel Newsom’s Country Hams in Princeton, Kentucky, even though founded commercially in 1917 by Hosea Newsom, had been curing country hams since they arrived in Western Kentucky in 1823 to claim a Revolutionary War land grant. The first ancestor there, William Newsom, even willed his country ham recipe to descendants. Now carried on by Hosea’s granddaughter, Nancy Newsom, one of the few female Kentucky Colonels, it has received international recognition and is the only country ham producer in the states invited to the prestigious World Congress on Ham in 2009 in Spain, where one of her hams now hangs in the Museo del Jamon.
Even into the 1940s, country ham wasn’t something you necessarily would find at the store. Rural Kentucky families either cured their own, or knew someone in the area who did. It wasn’t until after World War II that families started commercially producing country hams. The industry peaked in the 1980s with 35 producers at the founding in 1982 of the Kentucky Country Ham Producers Association. Now there are only 8 commercial producers left.
In addition to USDA regulations providing larger barriers of entry and continuation to smaller producers, changes in American eating habits have affected the industry. It used to be that retail grocers would buy the whole ham and slice on site. Now they want prepackaged already sliced meal sized portions for the ready to eat market. And, dry smoked bacon has surpassed the sales of country ham for most of the producers. The good thing is that Millennials eat out much more than their older Generation X and Baby Boomer elders, so they have experienced and appreciate the country ham they eat at restaurants. The only problem is marketing to them, which is done by hitting the events like the Fancy Food Show, the Country Ham Expo, and music events like Nashville Eats.
What would be cool is if the Alexandria fair hosted and marketed a local country ham tasting of the 4 H project products – or, if Metrople or Commonwealth hosted a country ham tasting. The only way you’re going to taste the variety of country hams is at the Ham Festival coming up in October 13 and 14 in Cadiz, Kentucky, in Triggs County. I will definitely be there!