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….
Tag: country ham
Nancy Newsom, The Ham Maid’s Tale
Rolling into Princeton, Kentucky, is like being thrown back in time.
Newsom’s Old Mill Store was opened in 1917, and although it burned down and was rebuilt next door to the original locale, it doesn’t feel like much has changed. The poplar floor creeks like an ancient symphony, even the door whistles like a bluegrass concerto when it swings shut. Outside on the sidewalk, there are a dozen varieties of tomato plants for sale, and pretty much everything you might want for your garden. Inside, are every manner of beans and corn, and jars of country condiments, from Hot Chow Chow to Appalachian Piccallili. In the back corner, past the buckets of penny candy, is where they slice the ham.
But perhaps nothing more important to the topic at hand — the raison d’être for a Heritage Pilgrimage that has flown all the way from New York and driven across two states in a torrential downpour —is Princeton’s fortuitous location on top of a watershed, where springs often pop up like wild weeds. Out behind the store, just behind the Newsom curing facility, is a running creek, which comes down from Big Spring as part of the Eddy Creek system, and eventually runs into Lake Barclay.
If the mold is the fairy dust that makes for the world’s best hams, the water and the moisture in the air plays as big a part in curing these hams as any human hand.
Unlike Benton’s, Nancy uses no climate control – her process is driven by the weather and the water in the air. She describes her hams as “ambient cured” — it is a seasonal experience, managed by God as much by man, and not an exact science. How long will the hams cure? How long will they smoke for? The answer is always changing.
“Well,” says Nancy, “It depends on the weather, and Kentucky weather can change every day.” More than that, the global climate has become unpredictable at best. “I have to rethink what I do every year.”
Benton’s began in 1947, when dairy farmer Al Hicks cured hams for local farmers. “Ham was sustenance food for hillbillies,” Al Benton says of the very thing that has become a culinary legend.
In 1973, Al was a High School guidance counselor struggling to make ends meet when he decided he was going to give a go to what he knew best. “I quit my job and then it really sunk in – it wasn’t going to be easy to make a living curing hams…. so I wrote to everyone I could think of, anyone who could help, university professors, cooks, I wanted to hear everyone’s ideas, and I studied everything I could, but I could never improve on the recipe from the old smoke house behind the house I was born in — people really seemed to like it. At the beginning I was thinking about curing quickly, maybe one hour for a twelve-lb. ham – I thought if I was going to make it in this business I had to work very fast and quick-cure, which is what the business was. But my daddy told me ‘If you play the other guy’s game, you are always going to lose. Make it the best you can. Quality is what is going to sustain you.
“Blackberry Farms changed things, this was in about 1991. We had just two employees then. John Fleer was the chef at Blackberry and he was already something of a star – he had been Mary Tyler Moore’s personal chef! John is such a good man, I never even heard him raise his voice, which is very rare among chefs… and he cared so much about sourcing. He called on day, he had bought some stuff from us, and I thought he was going to complain, but he wanted to see if it was okay to put our name on his menu at Blackberry. I thought there had to be a reason why not, but I couldn’t think of one. And then the phone started ringing, he had so many great chefs coming to visit him — Tom Colicchio, Thomas Keller — I guess that’s when I saw the Promised Land. There was a market for fine dining with the aged country hams and bacon.”
Later that night, dinner talk turned to moonshine, music, and professional wrestling — Tennessee, and Memphis, especially, being mecca’s of the great sport, led by it’s own King, Jerry Lawler, who’s greatest rivalry was a Jewish comedian from New York named Andy Kaufman. But mostly we talked about food, and mostly about ham. Al spoke with great admiration for his colleagues Sam Edwards and Nancy Newsom, to whom he gives great credit for bringing traditional Southern ham north.
“People are really starting to care where their food comes from — Look, when McDonald’s is talking about cage-free eggs, they’re reading the tea leaves. It gives me pride that small folks have been able to make such a ripple in food culture.”
Is southern charm one of the ingredients necessary to make a great country ham? You might think so if you ever met the Don and Doyenne of great country hams, the legendary Al Benton, and the unsinkable Nancy Newsom.
Al Benton, An Audience with A Godfather of Southern Cured Ham
It was teeming rain on the way from Nashville to Madisonville, Tennessee, the kind of rain that obscures the green, Smoky Mountains of Tennessee behind sheets of steam and fog and sounds like war drums on the roof of a rented car. It didn’t take much imagination to think we were driving through Skull Island, home of King Kong, or had somehow made a detour into the Heart of Darkness, a scene from Apocalypse Now. The truth, however, was far more comforting: We were on a mission to see a King and Queen of country ham, Al Benton and Nancy Newsom.
Making personal visits to farms, chefs, and providers has always been one of the hallmarks of Heritage Foods USA, and as anyone who has ever been on one of these trips with ringleader Patrick Martins knows, they are magical meat tours indeed, whirlwinds of gastronomic bliss and historical culinary discovery, epicurean epics writ large in regional cuisine. And, a hell of a lot of fun.
Benton’s Country Hams was the first stop on this pilgrimage to the cathedrals of southern ham, and we were greeted by the man himself in his small, roadside storefront.
“Don’t call me Mr. Benton,” he chided with a smile, “I’m Al.”
Al Benton speaks with an unerring southern twang that is like catnip to New Yawkers. And even though he teases at himself for being a hillbilly, he can’t hide his business acumen or old-school good looks — his smile is half Robert Redford and half Jimmy Carter, equal parts star power and earnest American. Speaking to him about his business is a powerful lesson in pride, good taste, modesty, respect for history, and the providence of good timing — both Al and his Kentucky counterpart, Nancy Newsom were lucky enough to catch the rising tide of foodies and enlightened chefs who recognized the soaring quality of their country hams just as cosmopolitan foodie culture was exploding.
While we spoke with Al, a steady stream of customers came in to buy bacon, ham parts, sliced country hams, and more bacon — young men wearing camo pants and trucker hats, soccer moms with their kids, a middle-aged man wearing a Grateful Dead t-shirt… ham does not discriminate. “The Southern Food Alliance,” Al mentions matter-of-factly, “is built on the idea that if you sat down at the table we are all the same. It doesn’t matter where you come from or what your ethnic background is.” Indeed, ham is the great equalizer.
Tommy — Al’s plant manager and right hand man (“Sometimes he’s up to his elbows in bacon grease, sometimes he is solving problems on the phone.”) — accompanies us with Al on a tour through his facility, which from the road looks no bigger than the storefront, but turns out to be a warren of rooms filled with hams hung to dry or curing in salt, a veritable bunker of porky goodness. The smell of hickory smoke kisses you on the face at every turn.
Al tells us about running into a burning smokehouse to literally save his bacon, screaming at the firemen “DO NOT USE YOUR HOSES, THERE IS BACON IN THERE!” and ruminates on his favorite places to eat: “I love Charleston, and New Orleans, but New York City, that’s the place, you can get everything… if I had one place to go there, though, it would be one of David Chang’s restaurants.” And why not? Chang’s Momofuku empire has been one of Benton’s great champions, and in fact, our pilgrimage follows the one made by Momofuku executive chef and prime mover Matt Rudofker just a week before.
There is no secret to the Benton formula for ham, it could not be simpler: “Just salt, sage, black and red pepper… we don’t use anything you can’t pronounce. You look at some of these industrially made hams – you can’t even read the ingredients, they have so many and things you never even heard of.”
They use a wood stove in the smoke room, burning local hickory — “The wood comes in when it does. When people are running out of beer and milk and want to sell some wood, they come see me. That’s always the way it’s been.” The hams spend three days in the smoke room to get that intense flavor. Bacon takes about five weeks to make, moving from curing (brown sugar and salt) into cooler rooms and then a heated room; hams can age up to two years. “You have to age the hams – it’s like cheese, it starts mild and when you age it the flavor becomes sharper.”
Edwards Prosciutto-Style Ham
This is a dry-cured ham that boasts the signature flavors of Surry, VA, where hams have been produced for 90 years by the Edwards family. Sam Edwards painstakingly salts, smokes and ages Berkshire hams for 400-600 days. As our hams pass through the Spring, Summer and Fall rooms of the Edwards facility, they acquire a depth of flavor that is second to none.
One 3.5-4lb piece $135
Broadbent Prosciutto-Style Ham
New-World and Old-World collide in this fresh example of Heritage cured ham. After over 100 years, Broadbent boasts a pasture-raised heritage product line and the results are a lighter, sweet and salty American prosciutto. Perfect with summer melon or on home made pizza! One 2.5-3lb piece $99
One 2.5-3lb piece $99
Fourth-generation ’nduja artisan Antonio Fiasche crafts his specialty in Chicago, where his family has run Ristorante Agostino for 32 years. Antonio was introduced to us at the 2016 Good Food Awards, honoring America’s great artisans. His ’nduja is sweet up front, followed by a subtle but uninhibited heat. We guarantee you’ll find this traditional Calabrian spread an unexpected and unforgettable, bold delicacy.
Three 6oz packs $36
This Salame di Felino is made in the Emilia-Romagna-style from the western part of the Province of Parma, most notably known for their prosciutto and Parmigiano Reggiano. It has a mild taste and buttery finish with distinct marbling throughout. This no frills porky salami is soft with creamy sweet fat. Nello’s Specialty Meats, one of Pennsylvania’s great curemasters, is a community fixture that processes and cures for dozens of farms locally.
Three 8oz packs $39
Easy Entertaining Package
Receive all 4 of the heritage cured meats plus a well-rounded Soppressata Salami with notes of black pepper from Underground Meats in Madison, WI.
Easy Entertaining package $175
Twenty years ago, the bulk of American charcuterie was cheap, commodity product. You could get a domestic prosciutto in a supermarket for half the price of Prosciutto di Parma. More recently, charcuterie in the United States is following the same trend we have seen with wine, beer, cheese, and bread. The talent chain is expanding and quality ingredients are becoming more accessible.
Says Martins, “Two decades ago, if you wanted to buy an imported beer, you paid a premium. American beer was cheap. Now the most expensive and sought-after beer is domestic, handcrafted beer, made in smaller quantities, with the best ingredients.
“The same thing is happening with high-quality charcuterie. Largely because of a new dedication to responsibly-sourced ingredients — heritage breeds, raised on pasture, humanely. The domestic version will be the sought after product. Imports will dwindle. We’ll still love our Italian and Spanish hams, but they won’t be nearly as prevalent, they’ll be nostalgia. The market is changing right before our eyes.”
This new wave is more sophisticated because of the quality of the farming. We are determined to change the taste through better ingredients — and you can’t make a great ham without starting with a great pig.”
There are two approaches to making a great ham — the Old-World style, best-known as Prosciutto di Parma or Jamón Serrano, and the American traditional style that comes out of the deep South, with the added step of smoking — and Heritage Foods is working with outstanding proponents of both:
Broadbent Hams, under the direction of Ronny and Beth Drennan, in Kuttawa, Kentucky, have won championships from the National Country Ham Association. They have recently added a new line of heritage breed, pasture-raised hams to their existing line of Southern Style hams, which goes back 100 years. They represent a new American style of prosciutto — lighter, with a uniquely sweet and salty flavor. The first wave will be available beginning this fall.
Cesare Casella was trained by the Norcini, the great Tuscan traveling butchers. He is a famed New York restaurateur, and Dean of Italian Studies at the International Culinary Center. His Casella’s pasture-raised salami is an astonishingly nuanced example of the artform. His line of Old World-style heritage prosciutto will be available beginning in March and are sure to be a formidable presence, bringing three-hundred years of Italian tradition to the vanguard.
Antonio Fiasche from ’Nduja Artisans continues a great tradition of Italian charcuterie. His family has run Ristorante Agostino in Chicago for over thirty years, and Antonio has led the charge towards expanding a curing business anchored by a wide variety of salamis and their family specialty, ’nduja, a spreadable, spicy, Calabrian pâté, which they have been making for five generations.
Al Benton cures his hams in an ancient smokehouse in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee with little consideration for the modern world. Even though Benton is a household name in the South, he is still hands-on and present in all steps of the curing process. He is another famed traditionalist who is forwarding the cause of the American charcuterie renaissance. His strong, salty, smoky hams have always enjoyed a huge following.
In addition, the Heritage Foods roster of great curemasters includes Nancy Newsom, whose grandfather started a curing tradition in his old Kentucky home that allowed seasonal change to flavor the ham naturally; Armondino Batali in Seattle, who creates bold, charismatic salumi from pasture-raised meat; Johnny Hunter, from Underground Meats in Wisconsin; Sam Suchoff and Rufus Brown, from Lady Edison in North Carolina; and Paradise Locker Meats whose injection curing process produces delectable maple sugar hams.