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April, 2009:

Smithfield Ham for Dummies (Part 1)

The final Product

The Final Product

Country Ham, and the undisputed King of this delicacy, Smithfield Ham, has been around since the first settlers at Jamestown. It was the early 90′s (That’s 1990′s, I’m not THAT old!) when I first cooked one of these. Leslie and I had moved to Capital Hill in Washington, DC, and would spend most Saturday mornings at Eastern Market, a neighborhood Farmer’s Market with all sorts of vendors. We went for Breakfast at the “Market Lunch,” sometimes standing in line for over an hour in order to eat Eggs Benedict, egg sandwiches on homemade rolls, and for me, Scrapple.

After breakfast we would waddle around the market, picking up fresh produce, sampling different cheeses, and gazing at all the wonderful things offered for sale. As Leslie headed off to the craft vendors, I would hit the Meat stalls. There were so many choices! Tons of different homemade sausages, ham hocks, steaks, ribs, pig’s feet (Which I have yet to try to cook), as well as other things that intrigued and disgusted me at the same time. I’d usually pick up some beef, sausages, and maybe some homemade ravioli from this one vendor I frequented, and I remember the first time I saw the Smithfield Ham.

It was a Saturday like any other, and I remember looking up from the glass display case and seeing something hanging in a light-brown cloth bag in the back of the stall. I immediately knew what it was (the shape was unmistakable), and I asked the proprietor how to cook it. “You need to soak it in water  for a few days first, then it needs to cook twice.” When he clumsily handed me the ham, I could see instructions printed on the back – In addition, he gave me a little pamphlet printed by the Smithfield folks on how to prepare the Ham. Armed with the ham and instructions, and $35 less in my wallet, I headed off to find Leslie.

It’s been so long I can’t remember what she said when I showed her the ham, but I’m pretty sure she rolled her eyes. We took it home and I went about following the instructions. I had some problems, such as not having a vessel large enough to soak the ham (Enter the Hacksaw!), and slicking it in thick slabs to serve (It was like a salt-lick), but that didn’t matter – When I realized how to slice it correctly, I was hooked! The flavor was definitely ham-like, but the depth was unlike any pork I had ever tasted. The salt, the bane of the slab-serving, accented the ham perfectly when it was sliced thin. We had ham biscuits, ham sandwiches, ham and potatoes, ham salad (Thanks, Dad!), ham and eggs, and just about anything else you can think of.

Today, these hams cost almost three-times as much with shipping, but I still cook one at least once a year, usually around Easter. My Mother always served ham at that time, and once I tried a Smithfield ham, all others paled in comparison. I’ve refined my technique over the years and have gotten quite good at it. It is still a process that takes days, but very little actual hands-on time. Still, most people find cooking a Smithfield ham daunting to some degree, and It’s rare that I find someone else who has actually done it. Thus, I decided to document the journey in hopes that one of you may decide to give it a try and re-connect with some of the first settlers of Virginia. If this process looks to long (it is) or complicated (it’s not!), have no fear – You can buy these hams pre-cooked and even pre-sliced. Check out my Links page for more information on where to buy.

Smithfield Ham – Peering Into The Past


Smithfield, Virginia, was founded in 1752. But we must glimpse back to the early 1500s, when a Spanish Explorer by the name of Hernando de Soto first brought hogs to North America, specifically Florida. They were also imported from England and Burmuda by 1639, and this was how they eventually ended up in Jamestown, Virginia. The town of Smithfield, across the James River from Jamestown, was first colonized in 1634, and is now know as “The Ham capital of the world.” 

Early settlers needed some way to preserve their meat, and drawing from both the Italians (think Prosciutto) and the Native Americans (who processed salt from seawater and taught them how to smoke meat), they started salt-curing then smoking their hams. As a side note here, we can trace Prosciutto back to China  – “Jinhua Ham” is also salt-cured and was brought to Italy by Marco Polo in the 13th century.

These hams quickly became America’s first quality export.  Queen Victoria liked them so much she considered them a delicacy. In fact, she had a standing order of 6 Smithfield hams a WEEK!

In 1926, the Virgina General Assembly passed a law dictating that “Genuine Smithfield hams [are those] cut from the carcasses of peanut-fed hogs, raised in the peanut-belt of the State of Virginia or the State of North Carolina, and which are cured, treated, smoked, and processed in the town of Smithfield, in the State of Virginia.”  Hogs used to roam the peanut fields and forage for the nuts missed during harvesting. The law was amended in 1966 to enable grain-fed hogs to qualify. An interesting tidbit is that most of the hogs processed in Smithfield come from North Carolina.

Smithfield is also home to the “oldest ham in the world,” and it is on display at the museum there. This ham was producted in 1902, and somehow got misplaced. P.D. Gwaltney, who is credited for refining the process developed by the settlers in 1870, discovered this ham sometime later and wanted to see how long it would last.  He called it his “pet ham” and took it with him as he traveled the country to prove that his products would last indefinately without refrigeration.  He even insured it by Lloyds of London for $1000, later upping it to $5000, and it has even been featured in “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.” The ham is now the centerpiece of an exhibit in the Isle of Wight Conuty Museum in Smithfield. In 2006, the museum was flooded by a storm but the ham was saved – Moved and (sorry folks) refrigerated briefly to ensure it would keep. You see, water and Smithfield hams don’t mix (Unless, of course, you are ready to cook!)

The Easter Pig Hops Into Tommy’s Kitchen!

The start of a beautiful relationship!

The start of a beautiful relationship!

It’s my Easter tradition – buying and cooking a genuine Smithfield, Virginia Country Ham. These can be super-salty, as the hams are dry salt-cured, then smoked with hickory and aged up to one year. This is not the kind of ham you cut in a thick chunk, throw on a plate, and serve with some scalloped potatoes. Do you love real ham biscuits? The kind with the slices of super-thin yumminess inside? This recipe is where this ham shines.

Most opt to buy their country hams pre-cooked, as it eliminates many of the steps (and days!) to prepare the ham correctly. Although it takes a while, the effort is minimal and the results spectacular. Since the process is daunting to many, I will be talking you through the process in the next few days, with photos, in hopes that you may want to try this yourself – or at least have some of the mystery uncloaked. is where I buy my country hams – stop by and take a peek. They sell both cooked and uncooked hams, in various kinds, and are the real thing.

See y’all soon!