|Smoke house, Wheatlands Plantation|
Salted smoke-cured ham. Ham biscuits. Country ham gravy. Those are tastes from my childhood I miss. My maternal forbears raised hogs and smoked their hams since, I suppose, the first of them left England and came to the Virginia/North Carolina border area in the early 1600s. My grandfather moved his family north to Maryland in the 1950s, built the house where we were raised, and never went back to farm life, aside from turning every available plot of ground around our house (and a few he hacked from the nearby woods) into a productive garden. But every so often he and my grandmother would travel south to visit family in southern Virginia and come home with a country ham, which would hang in our shed, all crusty brown and promising. How wonderful those rare dinners when all the cousins gathered and that ham was featured as the main course.
As a child I had no idea why that ham from Virginia tasted different--and so much better to my way of thinking--than the sweet hams we bought at the local grocery. Researching my first eighteenth century-set novel, Kindred, was like exploring bits of my childhood I'd taken for granted, those faint echoes of eighteenth century lifeways that had lingered into the 1970s, the era of my childhood. My characters live on a small tobacco farm in the piedmont, as did my ancestors, and grew corn and raised hogs as well as tobacco to feed their family. All my forebears older than my parents passed on before I began my novel research, but my mother has childhood memories of plucking alarmingly ugly worms off the tobacco leaves and making her own "stick" of leaves to hang in the curing barn. She and I both will never forget those smoked hams.
|Tyson McCarter Place. Smoke house at left, corn crib right.|
Foxfire series. With titles like Ghost stories, spring wild plant foods, spinning and weaving, midwifing, burial customs, corn shuckin's, wagon making and more affairs of plain living, and Animal care, banjos and dulcimers, hide tanning, summer and fall wild plant foods, butter churns, ginseng, and still more affairs of plain living, how could anyone interested in mountain life, or eastern rural life in past centuries, not feel like they've found a gold mine in these books?
~smoke house photos by Brian Stansbury, courtesy Wikimedia Commons