When the Heritage party arrived in Princeton, the rain had finally stopped and blue skies ruled the day. All that was missing was a ham sandwich.
Nancy Newsom greeted us with hugs and not a little love. We are not the first to travel across the country to meet her and see the wizardry firsthand — “Alice Waters came here and said I want to meet the ham lady!” she tells us. Nancy has a sexy, knowing drawl, rich with Southern pride, and she radiates nothing but warmth and true authenticity.
Her aide de camp, Anita, a former journalist for the local Times Leader, laughs. She has seen a lot of Yankees stumble in on the search for the greatest ham in the world. Ham, after all, is the universal language, like music.
“This is like a world heritage site!” Patrick exclaims, with genuine excitement, effusing about our trip and his belief in travelers and troubadours who would stop at medieval inns and taverns and exchange stories with strangers before making the journey back out into the world, and it is true — when we leave the South to go home to Brooklyn, we will bring with us epic tales of gastronomic greatness and culinary voodoo. Seeing Nancy or Al Benton’s hams hanging in a drying room is what it must have been like to watch Led Zeppelin record “Stairway to Heaven.”
Hungry, and never tired of ham, sandwiches are ordered all around — but first, a tasting is in order, there are important decisions to be made. Preacher ham? That would be the “Sunday best,” sugar-cured but not aged. We try Nancy’s prosciutto-style ham, cured on the bone in the old-world style, and introduced by Nancy in 2007 to a spectacular response. It is silky and elegant and mesmerizing, but it is the cooked country ham that wins the day for the New Yorkers.
The cooked country ham has a slightly more course texture, and is cut thicker, but has a taste unlike anything else we’ve ever tasted. It comes on white bread with mayo or mustard, and a slice of tomato for those who dare dilute the impact of the ham. Drinks are the local soda pop: Newsom’s proprietary grape, and Ale81. For a few moments while we eat the room is silent, the sure sign of a successful sandwich.
After a taste of the local pulled cream candy — perhaps the single most concentrated source of sweetness per bite ever created — Nancy takes us behind the scenes to see where this Kentucky alchemy all goes down.
“We don’t cure after April, starting in January,” she says, reminding us that “seasonality is a Newsom hallmark.”
Nancy takes us through the curing rooms, now empty that the hams have moved on to hanging in the smoke house and drying rooms, but she runs us through her system, where the hams are covered in salt and maple sugar, and placed on wood tables for the first cure, lining up in either direction to make a gorgeous mosaic of interlocking hams, and vertically stacked to the ceiling, and then moved to the lower shelves after being rinsed and cured again.
Nancy seems preternaturally aware of the moisture in the air — every time we enter a room we’re told to move quickly and the door shuts behind us to preserve the environment. “Everything makes a difference in these hams,” says Nancy. “We have to always be careful, every year, because the process can inch away from you a little at a time. I have to keep an eye on the fellows that do the curing. You have to use enough salt, and you can’t miss a spot…”
Like Benton’s, the Newsom method is simple, but Nancy’s operation is a little bit more down to earth – smaller in scale and without the leg-up of climate control. There is little technology here, but a lot of magic.
She also has kind words for Benton — the gods of ham here are not in competition with each other, rather they live together in some rarified, smoke filled air. “I’m not a name dropper,” Nancy laughs, “mostly I cant remember them! But I do recall my daddy Colonel Newsom talked to James Beard on the phone all the time, and all they talked about was ham.”
It was James Beard, in fact, who was first to bring Newsom’s to the outside world in 1975. Julia Child was soon after, and the cult-like following was formed.
Peter Kaminsky also gets high praise and undiluted thanks from Nancy for his book Pig Perfect in which she was featured. Since then the kudos has flowed like sarsaparilla: Southern Living, Esquire, Forbes, Eater, the New York Times…. a featured spot on the PBS television show Mind of a Chef….the huzzahs are endless. She shows us with pride a photo of a ham that is now featured prominently in the Museo del Jamon in Spain– she sent two, one to eat, one to be on permanent display, like a Picasso sculpture.
After our tour, Nancy takes us to meet her son John and his family at their house, where the creek has crawled across Princeton and now runs through his backyard. He has two large smokers and a large kettle for boiling hams, and one is just coming out when we arrive. Never sated, we eat it like shipwrecked men. New Yorkers, it would seem, just can’t get enough of the genuine article.
When Nancy talks about her father and grandfather, the men who started the business, she talks about their presence still being felt. She talks about spirits and ghosts. Nancy is a natural intuitive and feels things, sees things, all of which bring the untouchable to the curing process. John pulls us aside to show us his collection of arrowheads, an amazing testament to the heritage of the area which lies near the beginning of the Trail of Tears, and if you don’t believe there are spirits here, then you just aren’t tuned in.
As is usual for the Heritage crew, the day ends with the kind of dinner suited for hungry warriors, tonight at a massive Southern-themed restaurant with a large gift shop upfront, a mini-golf course out back, and waitresses dressed in period costumes delivering outsized pork chops and giant plates of catfish. The reading of the dessert selection alone was something like an antebellum vaudeville act, a soliloquy of pies and cakes that left everyone sugar-high and dizzy just trying to make a choice.
But on the way home, listening to Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline in the rented car, there was general consensus that one of the best things we ate all weekend were the ham sandwiches on white bread in Nancy’s store. In New York, we probably would have screwed it up putting it on rye.