This book celebrates country ham's colorful culinary past and its continued close ties with life across the South. Jeanne Voltz and Elaine Harvell discuss the lore and history of country ham; walk the reader through buying, preparing, and serving a country ham; and present some 70 recipes for country ham and its accompaniments. The book also features a glossary and a list of sources for ordering country hams.
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About the Author
Elaine J. Harvell has more than twenty-five years of experience in food marketing. She lives in Marietta, Georgia.
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The Country Ham Book
By Jeanne Voltz Elaine J. Harvell
The University of North Carolina PressCopyright © 1999 University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.
IntroductionCountry ham brings a warm feeling of home to us; we grew up with it. It was festive food for holidays and celebrations. When we were children, a ham from the farm shared the table with turkey and chicken for weddings, family reunions, funerals, and church suppers. The hogs were raised on family farms, to be slaughtered and salted to individual preference. Elaine's grandfather and Jeanne's grandmothers had their formulas for curing: salt plus a pinch of saltpeter, with sweeteners and spices added according to taste. In most farmyards there was a smokehouse, where the hams were hung over smoldering fires for the aromatic finish smoke gives to cured meat. We enjoyed the excitement, the socializing, and some of the work of the hog killing.
As a result of curing and aging hams, marvelous new flavors and textures unlike those in any other food are created. The first taste of country ham is salty. The flavor is big and complex in the mouth. The texture is firm with a richness unrivaled by any other meat. Even the tiniest sliver of country ham contributes rich flavor to a simple dish.
After we were grown, this meat created by hard-working farmers and planters almost disappeared from stores. A new kind of ham, called city ham by those who knew the farm-style classic, had appeared on the market. This new ham, which was soaked in brine for tenderness, was easy to cook and prepare. As more women took jobs outside the home, the convenience of hams that required no soaking and only a brief baking made the new hams popular. Festive dinners formerly centered around country hams carved to order were no longer in fashion.
The late James Beard once told Jeanne that "a whole generation of Americans are growing up never knowing one of the most elegant of all American foods [dry-salt-cured ham]." We agree with Beard; great dry-salt-cured hams are a taste of America that deserves perpetuating, and we hope this book enables present and future generations to understand and enjoy this world-acclaimed meat.
After the city hams became dominant, finding country hams was almost impossible outside the ham-loving Southeast. But as hard-core ham lovers, we managed to obtain ham for holidays even if we had to have it shipped in. A shipping company driver delivering a ham in Los Angeles might be puzzled that we would have ham sent across the country. But if the courier was from the South, a box containing genuine country ham brought back memories of childhood meals. Today meat markets in the South order fine dry-salted hams and have them on display for holidays. In one North Carolina city in the summer of 1998, hams were advertised for the Fourth of July, and television commercials for old-fashioned Tennessee hams ran in the Atlanta market.
Dry-cured hams were a foundation of life in America, first as a commodity that was readily bought by the British, providing cash to the colonists. Eventually the taste for ham developed in the New World, and ham was daily fare at plantation and farm homes, particularly in the South, where preserving meat was most critical. A well-made ham survived the heat of summer and could sit on a table for hours with little worry about spoilage.
Some folks think of country hams as a chore to cook, requiring too much time and muscle. Yes, cooking a whole or large half of this style of ham takes time, but it offers a special convenience. Afterward, the cooked ham comes to the rescue for dozens of emergency meals and snacks for unexpected guests or for family when time and energy for cooking run out. Ham sliced and served with biscuits or on small pieces of bread makes a luncheon, an easy supper, or a substantial snack for drop-in guests. Ham bits sprinkled over a salad, soup, or stir-fry vegetables make everyday dishes special. Slices of cooked ham can be sautéed for breakfast or late-night suppers with eggs or fruit. The very best pleasure of fine ham may be the morsels shaved off for snacking. There truly is no waste.
A ham cooked for Christmas is a particular joy for New Year's Day, with black-eyed peas and rice for luck as a relaxed ending to the holidays. A ham cooked for Easter can last through several batches of sandwiches or fruit-and-ham plates and may be shaved over springtime asparagus before Memorial Day. Summer ham cooked at night to avoid heating up the kitchen appears on plates with fresh tomatoes, bell peppers, melons, fruits, and crabmeat or other seafood (ham and crab is a great invention of fine cooks on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia).
We recognize that people who do not know the pleasures of country ham have not the vaguest idea of how to buy or cook it. This is understandable. Consulting early cookbooks, such as Mrs. Randolph's, Eliza Leslie's, or Amelia Simmons's, we find scant mention of country ham cookery. The cooks of the first two centuries in the New World knew how to cook hams and did not normally use recipes. American girls' schools were rare, and many women were not taught to read. Even in the twentieth century, few cookbooks and pamphlets, except those published by curers producing hams commercially, say much about this fine food of colonial America.
On our parents' and grandparents' farms we saw hogs grow fat and meaty, and we understood why a child eating a huge meal or taking the largest piece of pie was called a pig. When corn or kitchen scraps were poured into the feeding trough, the sow and her piglets pushed and shoved to get at the food. We have seen those animals turned into hams, bacon, and fresh cuts at slaughter time on our family farms.
Remembering summer meals with several grandchildren at the farm reminds us how important ham was. Sliced ham at breakfast with biscuits and grits often was the only meat of the day. Midday dinner consisted of as many as fifteen vegetables-everything that was ready for harvest in the garden-with hot cornbread, butter, milk, and iced tea to drink. Supper was anything left from dinner plus supplements such as berries, peaches, fresh figs, or homemade applesauce with cream skimmed off the milk. One or two chickens were killed for Sunday dinner.
Gretchen Johnson Corbett, Elaine's aunt, remembers her mother's morning routine. "Breakfast was no hurry-up job for Mama. Every morning she baked fresh biscuits, fried sliced ham, and made redeye gravy and cooked grits." Elaine's grandparents' farm was next door, so the cherished grandchild ate at her grandmother's often.
We do not propose going back to the cooking of a half-century ago. We feel that country ham has a place in modern cooking. We suggest ham for the holidays or special occasions. Guests adore it when it is properly carved. Jeanne introduced Californians to country ham and smoked turkey buffet. The ham was carved paper-thin and arranged beforehand on platters, covered, and refrigerated. The turkey smoked by her husband, Luther, also was sliced and put on its platters. Casseroles of scalloped potatoes or rice pilaf plus marinated cold asparagus, carrots, green peas and mushrooms, cranberry sauce, and other relishes accompanied the meats. Californians ate the ham and turkey with gusto. Some were anxious to learn new tastes, others recalled past meals in the South, and some were being polite. Their acceptance made the work worthwhile.
The National Country Ham Association reports that its members sell more than 3.5 million hams annually. Hams processed by nonmembers are difficult to track, but the hams sold by nonmembers may outnumber those marketed by members of the association. The ham-processing industry includes curers who offer a hundred or so hams a year as well as those who market hams by the thousands.
What started as family farm activity developed into an enterprise, with the younger generation taking over as the older generation retires at many of the large companies. In Smithfield, Virginia, ham processing is done by descendants of the founders of the firms and of village folk who worked with ham since the early days. Many ham curers in Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, the Carolinas, West Virginia, and Missouri learned their craft by trailing after their parents and grandparents through ham houses.
Ham biscuits, the 1990s version of the traditional farm breakfast, are daily fare for thousands of southerners. Almost every stool at the counter of a fast-food eatery, diner, or cafe is occupied by a man or woman grabbing morning sustenance en route to work. In some establishments, the talk is of football, hunting, last night's TV thrills, or politics. At the other end of the social scale are biscuits so dainty that one filled with thin slices of ham makes a mouthful, with a sip of wine or punch at a tea or reception. A holiday party is hardly legal without trays piled high with the delicious mini-sandwiches.
Fist-sized, freshly baked biscuits hold the breakfast ham. Men eating in lumber and naval stores camp cookhouses dubbed the giant breads "cat's heads," likening the size and chunky shape to that of the camp mouse catcher. This outsize biscuit, sometimes lightly sweetened and with an egg in the dough, did double duty as the base for old-fashioned strawberry shortcake.
Beaten biscuits, the most glorious bread with ham, almost disappeared when servants became scarce. Few home cooks had the time or patience to beat the dough long enough to produce this biscuit's unique texture. Beaten biscuits were popular in Virginia, Maryland, and Kentucky and were a special-occasion food in other parts of the South. A "biscuit brake," a contraption that works somewhat like an old-time washing machine wringer, was invented to make the beating easier. The dough is passed through the rollers that beat it with the turn of a hand crank. A lover of beaten biscuits is lucky to inherit or find a biscuit brake in a shop that specializes in antique kitchen equipment. Traditionally the dough was beaten vigorously for dozens of strokes with a heavy bat or mallet-like tool. Today beaten biscuit dough can be finished in a food processor by the method described below.
Busy cooks may use high-quality frozen biscuits that are hard to distinguish from those made with fine, home-mixed dough. (Marshall's are available in the South in markets and grocery stores.) In some towns a baker will supply freshly baked biscuits. Ham in heated dinner rolls can be good, too.
Fresh biscuits baked for parties are cut small, 1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter. Ideal for caterers and hostesses putting on fancy teas and receptions are Angel Biscuits, sometimes called Riz Biscuits, leavened with yeast in addition to baking powder or baking soda. They can be baked, refrigerated, and reheated and are acceptable at room temperature when filled ahead of time to serve a crowd.
The country ham is sliced paper-thin for biscuits, as for most uses, and is cut from a cooked ham with a thin strip of fat on one edge. Or the small thin cuts labeled "biscuit slices" in markets may be used. Sauté the uncooked ham until browned, and cool it before tucking into biscuits. If the ham is too large to fit the biscuit, fold it over. Several small slices may be piled into a biscuit for a fatter sandwich.
Selma Buttermilk Biscuits
8 to 10 cat's head biscuits or 18 3-inch biscuits
Jeanne had these biscuits the first time she visited her husband's grandmother, Florence Chestnut Voltz, in Selma, Alabama. Her cook, who took great pride in her biscuits, insisted on solid white shortening and baked the biscuits in two layers for pull-apart ease in filling with fig or peach preserves or a sliver of ham.
2 cups all-purpose, soft-wheat flour (White Lily, Red Band, etc.) 3//4 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon baking soda 1/3 cup cold solid vegetable shortening 2/3 cup buttermilk or plain yogurt 1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons soft butter
Preheat oven to 450°. In a medium-size bowl, mix flour, salt, and baking soda. Cut in the shortening with a pastry blender or two table knives until mixture resembles coarse sand. With a fork, stir in the buttermilk or yogurt until dough clings together. Turn out onto a lightly floured board and knead a minute or two, until smooth. Roll or pat out dough to 1/3-inch thickness. With a floured 1 1/2-inch cutter, cut 36 to 38 rounds. Brush soft butter over bottom rounds; press unbuttered rounds over the others. Place biscuits 1 inch apart on an ungreased baking sheet.
Bake 10 to 12 minutes, until lightly browned. Split and fill with thin slices of ham.
To serve as a breakfast or dinner bread, cut with a 2 1/2- to 3-inch cutter to make 8 to 10 biscuits.
Excerpted from The Country Ham Book by Jeanne Voltz Elaine J. Harvell Copyright © 1999 by University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
CONTENTS Acknowledgments Introduction
1. Food of the Ancients
2. Ham Is Americanized
3. Ham What Am
4. Hog Killing
5. Buying Country Ham
6. Cooking Country Ham
7. Show-Off Ham
8. Trimmings for Country Ham
9. Ham and Eggs
10. Ham Biscuits
11. Ham and Corn
12. Ham with Greens, etc.
13. Ham's Finale: Soups and Beans
14. The Last Tidbits
15. Early American Recipes
16. Chefs' Inspiration
17. Celebrating Ham Ham Glossary Sources for Ordering Country Ham Bibliography Index
What People are Saying About This
This is a rare cookbook where the opening chapters are must-reads, covering the history, the making and the handling of hams. If you've ever been lucky enough to end up with a slow-cured ham and not had a clue where to begin, now you know where: with Voltz. Her directions are precise and authoritative.Charlotte Observer
A splendid new book. . . . Almost everything you might want to know about country ham, including the history and lore of this Southern staple.Raleigh News & Observer
Jeanne Voltz and Elaine J. Harvell trace the colorful history of salt-cured ham from ancient Egypt through China and Europe to contemporary America. Along the way, they celebrate its continued close ties with Southern life. . . . Illustrates this meat's broad range of culinary life that envelopes it. . . . This book is sure to become a keepsake for all generations of country ham lovers.Our State
For those who grew up with country ham or discovered it later in lifeeven for those poor, deprived souls who have never sampled its savory smell and sublime texturethere's now a practical paean to this precious portion of pork.BookPage
A definitive book perfect for a country ham lover.Taste-Full
With The Country Ham Book, Jeanne Voltz and Elaine Harvell fill a huge void in our knowledge of American cooking. They also dish up some of the most mouth-watering recipes I've seen. This is one cookbook I'll keep at the ready!Jean Anderson, author of The American Century Cookbook
It's about time someone lavished this kind of loving attention on one of America's great heirloom foods. This book is as welcome as a warm ham biscuit on a cold winter morning.Jim Auchmutey, Atlanta Journal-Constitution