Wednesday, March 2, 2011

How Tennessee and Kentucky Country Hams Became Famous

J. Mark Lowe

Although our consumption of country hams has declined, the special flavor is one that many still desire on special occasions. It was a tradition in the church where I was raised that a special country ham was the gift from the congregation to the minister at Christmastime.
It was always a special treat to have country ham and biscuit at a neighbor's home. I remember when as a Boy Scout our troop went to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. We were allowed to bring along a girlfriend. We ate in the Dining Room there and I ordered ham from the menu. The server asked if I knew that it was 'country ham' not 'city ham?' Being somewhat embarrassed (in front of my date) being questioned about ham, I said, "I'm from the country and that's the only ham I eat" The ham was delicious, but the story got spread throughout our group.
Country ham is synonymous with hospitality and the South. Once at Old Washington in Mason County, Kentucky, I was honored to be at a re-created 18th Century Dinner. A variety of country ham was presented with numerous secret recipes. I know that at least one contained some sipping whiskey. Along with the scrumptious ham, we were served Cat Head biscuits, with regular butter. Rounding out the platter were sweet potatoes with options for Kentucky Bourbon butter with cinnamon. No wonder some of my Ancestors were large-boned.
I found two interesting stories about locally produced country ham. One was a wonderful story printed in the December 20th edition for 1898 in the St Louis Post-Dispatch about country hams from Robertson county Tennessee and the other a cookbook published in 1889 by Alex Fillippini. Get those hot biscuits ready.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch - Dec 20, 1898
“The ‘country hams’ made by three generations of Washingtons of Robertson county, Tenn., have ranked with the finest cured hams in America. For 75 years these hams have been noted for their flavor, and early in this country the leading hotels of Philadelphia and New Orleans had “Washington’s country hams” announced on their bills of fare.
Joseph Washington (1770-1848) was a Virginian. He went to Tennessee early in the present century. He grew tobacco and cured hams by the old Virginia method. His son, the late Col. George Washington (pictured at left)followed him, and he soon became the largest tobacco grower in the world[He was actually the second largest tobacco grower in the world, first in the U.S.] and the largest land cultivator in Tennessee. Col. Washington also kept up the quality of the Washington hams. Today George A. Washington (1868-1926), on the old estate of his father and grandfather, used the same formula for preparing his meat as the Washingtons of Virginia used in the last century. It has been given out by Mr. Washington for publication.
“There is no particular breed of hogs that I use to secure these hams.” He said. “I always kill my hogs in November, for November meat does not spoil like some slaughtered in December or January. I won’t kill in freezing weather, either, for it is not necessary to have it as cold as 32 degrees. I think 40 degrees is about the right temperature. If the weather turns suddenly cold and freezes my pork I do not salt it down, but in this case I put the pork in a warm cellar until it entirely thaws. Sometimes this takes two days, but I will not salt frozen meat.
I use none but Ohio River salt. I have a lot of red pepper ground up, and I mix it thoroughly with the salt. I make the mixture a reddish color, but cannot tell by measures how much pepper I put to the bushel of salt; I only go by the color. When the mixture is made I pour on New Orleans molasses and mix that to the consistency of soft dough. First I have the hams cut and a little saltpeter rubbed all around the center bone. I then put them out of doors in the sun for an hour, and afterwards rub well the skin with the mixture. The men wear hand leathers or mittens to rub with, and when this is done sufficiently, the skin is so soft that you can pinch it up. I then pack down all other pieces of meat and put the hams on top, for I do not want them pressed by the other meat. I cover, with a good coat of this mixture the flesh side of the ham; I suppose the thickness of the coating is about a quarter of an inch. I have no regular time to leave them in the salt; that depends on the weather. I can tell from their appearance when they should be hung up. When this time comes I have a kettle of strong pepper water, and dip the hams in that & wash them clean. I then smoke them sufficiently with green hickory. They are at last put in canvas cover and painted with a good coat of whitewash and in this manner they will keep for years.”
The Table: How to Buy Food, How to Cook It, and How to Serve It, 1889
How to Prepare Ham for Broiling and Frying.— Procure a fine, sound, smoked ham, preferably a Washington Ham from Tennessee, weighing about twelve to thirteen pounds, selecting it as lean as possible. With a sharp knife, begin cutting it carefully at the end of the shank bone, between the bone and the string used for hanging purposes, coming down on to the knuckle ; follow the edge of the bone, until the small edge bone is fully reached, then make a straight cross-cut from the bone, so as to separate it entirely. When this
is accomplished, put the bone part aside for soup, garnishing, scrambled eggs, sauces, or any other needful purposes. Keep the ham hung up in a dry place in a moderate temperature.
For broiling and frying. — Cut from the boneless part the necessary number of slices desired to be used each time, as thin as possible, always beginning from the side of the edge-bone. Pare off the skin neatly from the slices, and arrange them on the broiler, then broil them for two minutes on each side; take from off the fire, dress them on a hot dish, and send to the table. By preparing the ham as described in the above, it will always be crisp and enjoyable. When frying, four minutes will be sufficient in very hot fat.

Okay, friends - what's your story about Country Ham or Cat-Head Biscuits? I'm off to the kitchen to see what's cooking.
If you are interested in learning more about this plantation see The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation: Stories of My Family's Journey to Freedom by John Baker, Jr.

1 comment:

  1. Your article made me very hungry. I enjoyed it very much.