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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

In Ye Olden Days: Smoked Hams

Smoke house, Wheatlands Plantation
By Lori Benton

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.
Hog butchering was typically done after the first cold snap to help preserve the meat, often not until November or even December. The hams and other cuts of meat were first rubbed with a salt mixture (sometimes mixed with molasses and pepper or other spices) and allowed to cure for a few weeks. Then the meat was hung inside the smokehouse on hooks or suspended by rope from the rafters. Fires were built directly on the ground if it was a dirt floor, and had to be carefully maintained for the entire smoking process. Woods like hickory or apple flavored the meat, and the end result  produced a crust that kept away insect pests. Some families built their smokehouses with plenty of ventilation, while others built them tight, to trap the smoke.

One of the best set of books I can recommend for writers researching aspects rural or mountain life like hog butchering are the 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

6 comments:

  1. Oh, yes! I remember the Foxfire series! My husband is a career bookseller and when we were doing bookfairs he would recommend these to the homeschool community. He's a mountain man wanna be - perhaps a holdover from his boy scout days - and loved to look through these volumes when he got them into the store. Today, though, with the demise of the neighborhood independent bookstore and all things Amazon and corporate run book chains - he spends his mid-life working within the system in a computer driven B&N. I'll have to mention the Foxfire series to him - good memories of bygone bookselling days.
    Joy!
    Kathy

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  2. Kathryn, my husband is a Boy Scout troop leader (and another mountain man wanna be). His troop attends a mountain man rendezvous each year. This year he brought me a lovely black powder horn. It's hanging by my desk. Yes, sometimes I'd rather have a powder horn than flowers.

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  3. I love this article, Lori B.! Thanks for sharing. My son just joined Cub Scouts. The powder horn is a great writing inspiration piece!

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  4. Susan Craft said...
    Thanks so much, Lori, for the reference to the Foxfire series. Fantastic resource! Don't know how I missed running across these. I love the idea of your powder horn present instead of flowers.

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  5. Susan, you just made my day. I love sharing these books and other such research. I was late in coming to discover them too. Only about a year or two ago. I don't know how I missed them for so long either. Happy reading!

    Carrie, I hope your son enjoys scouting. My husband certainly does. We've had quite a few boys make Eagle Scout in the seven or so years the troop has been in existence.

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  6. Translation: I am amazed! I had a flat and a kind soldier stopped to help while his red-headed brat looked on, otherwise I would have been walking. He would accept no payment for his services.

    Author, Robert Dennis Wilson
    woodnames@hotmail.com

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