When you visit a region, its cuisine says as much about its culture as paintings in an art museum. Travelers rush to Napa Valley for wine, Wisconsin for cheese, Maine for lobster... but there’s just as much history, love and tastiness in Virginia’s hams.
I took it upon myself to forge an unofficial ham trail, covering theory to practice: unadulterated, artisan meat to gourmet restaurant cuisine.
Smithfield, VA, ham
Just like champagne can only come from its eponymous area, Smithfield hams can only come from the town of Smithfield. Like Donnie Baker would say, “It’s state law!” Virginia hams are country hams, but you can also get “city ham” there, too. Got this straight?
English folks first started colonizing Smithfield in 1634. It’s in the same part of the state as Jamestown, on the James River and not far from the Atlantic Ocean. It was probably the ready source of salt and saltwater, along with cooler temperatures in fall and winter, that created the ideal conditions for curing the classic Virginia ham. Check out some of this country’s earliest cookbooks: the finest amongst them extol the unique flavor.
Darden’s Country Store: Family owned since the early 1950’s, this place is beloved by famous foodies including Tyler Florence, chefs of Southern Living and the New York Times. They don’t ship and don’t sell anywhere else. They have a Smithfield address, but it's a good piece out of town and is – it’s fair to say – in the middle of nowhere.
Tommy and Dee Dee Darden are the family members overseeing things today. Years ago, I got a chance to talk to Tommy in his smokehouse out back. Obtaining his pigs from Smithfield Foods, he uses his own mixture of salt, black pepper, hickory and applewood smoke, along with a good, long aging process for a substantially savory, slightly gamy country ham. This is old-school style.
Tommy said that for family hams, he ages them several months longer. Country folks still appreciate the classically Southern flavors. He told me a joke they told in town when pigs were rounded up for the abattoir and odors were pungent. “Smells like money!”
There’s another local joke: “What’s the definition of forever? Two people and a country ham.” The nourishing but salty staple lasts a long, long time.
Grab one of the rickety stools in back and ask Dee Dee or one of the family’s teens to sell you a “ham biscuit” for $1. In some homes, in some eras, that really was ham inside a biscuit. Nowadays, it’s common to have a thin slice of country ham on a mini roll that’s pretty much like those from KFC. No toppings, mayo or mustard. They hold up perfectly in the heat and are popular passed hors d’oeuvres at fancy Southern parties. It’s the same dry meat/roll concept as the pepperoni rolls beloved in West Virginia that were practical lunches brought by Italian coal miners.
Get all things ham related (and Virginia peanut related) that you can imagine and that you probably never imagined at Taste of Smithfield, the Genuine Smithfield Ham Shoppe! Smithfield Foods has several ham lines and you can get them all here. There’s a little café area and it seems to be a favorite gathering place for many of the town’s elegant folks. I doubt you’ll be able to leave empty-handed: there are so many locally made delicacies and craft items.
Something not made in Virginia, but so fitting in the place, is “Lester’s Fixins Bacon Soda”. Yes, I bought a bottle, but didn’t have the courage to try it until just now. As you might guess, it’s probably an acquired taste. But I can see it with a splash of bourbon to easy-copy those “fat washed” mixologist drinks. I think it would go well when eating fried chicken. And, I’m sure it’d make a fantastic braising liquid for ham or ribs.
Learn more about how the town and ham are, and have been, intertwined at the Isle of Wight County Museum. P.D. Gwaltney, Jr. may be long gone, but his “pet” – the world’s oldest ham at 115 and counting – lives on and has its own livecam!
Smithfield doesn’t have a lock on tasty ham, though. Down the road in Surry County is Edwards Virginia Smokehouse. It’s been family run since 1926. They have both regular folks around the world and fancy Southern chefs like Sean Brock cheering them on: on January 19, 2016, the smokehouse burned down. Their retail store has been restored and they’re commissioning hams made to their specifications. Their special aged Surryano ham, made of pigs “finished” on peanuts like pioneer colonists did, will take some more time to fully bring back to market. Here, too, you can pick up a ham biscuit to munch on. They even gussy up some of them with that Southern spread, pimento cheese. Edwards’ ham has rich, buttery flavor that’s pretty irresistible.
Another thing the store didn’t have restocked yet was “Pigsie”. Pigsie is a very soft, pink fleece stuffed animal that they sold in the past.
Living amongst the pork products, it must have absorbed an alluring odor. Two little dogs of mine who normally would eat the stuffing out of all toys and deposit cotton batting around the house like entrails, revered and still revere the bacony doll. For the late Mr. Jefferson, Pigsie served as a comforting little hospice friend. I wanted an extra for Madam, just in case. Maybe she knows! She respects the Pigsie.
So what’s a good place to try all this local goodness? A new restaurant in the funky Fan District of Richmond is a new locals’ favorite, not yet discovered by tourists.
Spoonbread Bistro does an elegant modern fusion of Southern and European (mostly French) cuisine. Like the menu, the ambiance is contemporary with traditional touches like pressed tin ceilings, Edison lights. It’s always a good sign when dinner starts with an amuse bouche: in this case, a tiny bite of grilled country pate with sweet balsamic vinegar, caramelize onions and house-made grain mustard. Of course, I had to order the spoonbread. They serve fried spoonbread – which caramelizes it – with grilled foie gras and salty ham bits. Decadent.