The Quest for Ham.
Greetings, loyal minions. Your Maximum Leader had a little adventure this past Saturday. It is one that, regardless of how much he tried to make it happen, he can’t write this post in his traditional third-person prose. So, if you will allow him to slip out of character…
For many years Easter at my home was synonymous with one thing. Ham. Specifically, a good Smithfield ham. Because nothing quite captures the true meaning of our Lord and Saviour’s resurrection quite like salt-cured ham. From the mid-1980s on I would acquire a Smithfield ham a few weeks before Easter and would lovingly prepare it for feasting on Easter.
After I got married my lovely bride allowed this little tradition to continue, until about 4 years ago. About four years ago she declared that country hams were too costly and too unhealthy. She also declared that we’d be doing different things at different homes on Easter so it was impractical to go through all of the work for a ham. After much wailing and gnashing of teeth I finally gave in.
Four years later and there has been no Smithfield ham on Easter. We would have ham. But it wasn’t Smithfield (or Country) ham. Just regular old ham.
Longtime readers of this space will know that I am a firm believer that the pig is (after the dog) pretty much the greatest of all domesticated animals. (And frankly, if one was to just count the domesticated animals that we eat the pig is far and away number one.) If there is a better way to prepare the hind legs of a pig than to cure it and turn it into ham; I don’t know what it is. Ham is as close to the food angels eat in heaven as we will ever know.
In case you don’t recall, I’ll direct you to a post I did back in 2006 about knowing your hams for the benefit of Mrs. P. In the post I expound on Smithfield hams, Country hams, Serrano hams and Virginia ham. I also touch on ham pillows too. So, I’ll consider that material “as read” for the rest of this little story…
Well… As it turns out, my lovely bride (Mrs. Villain) announced that she had no set plans for Easter and that I could do or prepare anything I wanted (so long as we did it at her mother’s house). I enjoined her “Does this mean I could do up a Smithfield ham?” Her answer was yes. I was all hot and bothered over the prospect of a great Smithfield ham for dinner. There was now the task of procuring the ham with which I had to concern myself.
I’m not one to just go to the grocery store and pick up a Smithfield (or Country) ham. No, I want to inspect the ham and choose one from many. It is my way. I can’t help it. You see, I got spoiled. I became acquainted with some members of the Joyner family. The Joyners were for many years the largest independent producer of ham in Smithfield and Isle of Wright County, Virginia. I say independent because they were not part of the Smithfield Foods family. Smithfield Foods is a Fortune 500 company and is the largest meat-packing company in the US (and possibly the world). Smithfield Foods has high quality products that are very affordable. (In fact, I swear by certain Smithfield Foods products around the house.) But as good as a Smithfield ham from Smithfield Foods or one of their affiliates; it wasn’t quite the same as a Joyner’s brand Smithfield ham. I used to go to the Joyner’s store and take a look at my ham and closely inspect it before buying it. I would look for the size, shape, firmness, mold color and fat thickness. I wanted to make sure the ham was just right.
So, I resolved to go to the town of Smithfield and go to the Joyner’s store and get myself a ham.
I resolved to make this trip this past Saturday.
Originally it was going to be a big outing for the whole family. But as the week progressed and the day neared it became clear that the outing wasn’t going to be quite as big. Villainette #1 was going to a birthday party and wouldn’t attend. The Wee Villain had been sick and would need more resting time with his mom at home. And Villainette #2 had a soccer game in the morning. I feared I would be the only one making the trip.
Then fate intervened and it was pouring down rain on Friday night and into Saturday morning. Villainette #2 could come with me if her game was cancelled. I anxiously waited until we could call the coach and confirm the cancellation. I was itching to get on the road. Sadly, the game wasn’t postponed until 10 am. That was later than I had hoped to be able to get some sightseeing done along the drive. At 10:15 Villainette #2 and I were in the Villainmobile and on the road.
I had a whole plan mapped out in my head for this trip for a few weeks. We’d drive to Jamestown and take the Jamestown/Scotland Ferry across the James River into Surry County. That would be the first experience of the day. Then we would stop at Smith’s Fort Plantation and see it. Then we would drive on to Bacon’s Castle and make a stop. Then on to Smithfield and some lunch at Smithfield Station on the banks of the Pagan River. After lunch, off to the Joyner’s smokehouse and picking out of the ham. Then head out of town and stop by St. Luke’s Church (Episcopalian) for a little more sightseeing. Then across the James River Bridge at Newport News to catch a glimpse of the people at Newport News Shipbuilding building the nuclear super carriers for the Navy. Then back to Fredericksburg.
Unfortunately, this plan required an early start. That early start was shot. (As was the whole family participating.) So, the sightseeing was cut out of the trip and postponed to another day.
Little did I know that a little adventure was nonetheless in the offing.
Villainette #2 and I made it down to the Jamestown/Scotland Ferry with no trouble. We enjoyed the 25 minute trip across the river. It was the first time Villainette #2 had ever been on a Ferry. She was pretty excited about it. We were also lucky because the day started as an overcast and drizzly 50 degree day in Fredericksburg but as we crossed over to Scotland, VA the weather had cleared and it was 70 and sunny.
As it was approaching half-past noon as we pulled into Scotland, we had to skip Smith’s Fort and Bacon’s Castle. I pointed them out from the road as we passed and promised that we would make the trip again and stop.
We arrived in Smithfield about one o’clock and Villainette #2 indicated that she wanted to eat lunch before buying the ham. I agreed that her plan was a good one. So we went to Smithfield Station.
If you happen to be cruising (in a boat preferably – but by car is okay too) and you are near Smithfield, I highly recommend stopping in for victuals and drink at Smithfield Station. Indeed, you should choose to spend the night at Smithfield Station if you can. It is a great place. In a boat navigating the Pagan River isn’t hard at all – presuming your boat doesn’t draw more than a few feet. There are a few shallows on the way, but it is pretty much 10-20 feet deep all the way in from the mouth of the Pagan River.
The two of us had a nice lunch. We started with hush puppies (with small pieces of Smithfield ham and jalapeño peppers inside). Villainette #2 had a sandwich with smoked turkey and Smithfield ham. I had a Smithfield ham and crab quiche with fruit.
After lunch we went downtown in search of our ham at the Joyner’s store…
Well… I was in for a rude surprise. No Joyner’s store. I stood in front of the building where I knew the shop had been located and protested to my daughter that I knew it was “right here.” I didn’t know why the Town Clerk’s office was “right there” were I was supposed to get my ham.
So, we walked down the street a ways to the Smithfield Foods ham store. I went in and spoke to the ladies at the counter and asked what happened to Joyners. They let me know that the Joyner family accepted a huge buyout offer from Smithfield Foods three years ago. Smithfield Foods kept the brand around for a year after the buyout, but have since shut down the brand in favor of their Luter’s brand hams.
Well. That was a shock. I stood there in silence for a moment when my daughter piped in “It will be okay Dad. I’m sure this ham is good too.”
I resolved that the Luter’s ham would have to do and purchased one. We took it to the car and put it in the trunk. Villainette #2 mentioned that we shouldn’t go just yet. She noted slyly that there was an ice cream store down the street and we should check to see if they had ham-flavored ice cream. Since she was trying so hard to invent a reason to get ice-cream I decided to indulge her.
We went down the street to the ice-cream store. (NB: No ham-flavored ice-cream.) Once we got there however, we both decided that we were still full from lunch and didn’t want ice-cream. So we went across the street to one of the little art galleries to take a look around. The gallery drew us in by having a painting of a whole squadron of flying pigs dressed to look like WWII aviators. It amused us.
Once inside I struck up a conversation with the kind lady who was tending to the store. She told me a little about the painting that drew our eye. Then conversation turned to why we were in town. I explained my quest for the perfect Smithfield ham and how I was saddened to learn about the Joyners being bought out.
Well, the art-store lady got a little gleam in her eye and said, “Well, if you are looking for a good ham I can tell you where to get the best ham in the whole county.” I figured the best ham in a county known world-wide for their hams had to be pretty damned good. I inquired how good was this good ham? The art-store lady replied that this ham was not only award-winning at the county fair, but Martha Stewart herself had once flown in to Smithfield on her private jet to buy one of these hams and serve it at a holiday dinner at her home about 10 years ago. The art-store lady added that Martha Stewart still orders one ham from this place every year around Christmas time. Okay. I bite. I asked where exactly do I find this ham?
Darden’s Country Store was the answer. The art-store lady indicated that it was a bit of a drive out of town into the country. I told her I (we in fact) was up for the trip.
In keeping with the habits of Southern people in particular, she gave me a set of directions that might have foiled others. I was to go down Main Street a shot until I passed by the funeral home. A short way past the funeral home there was a house next to a family graveyard. I turned left there. Then I followed the road a while (about 5 minutes she thought) and then turned left again at a “steep jog” in the road. Then I was to follow that road for about 5 minutes and make a right a copse of oak trees on one side of the road and a big magnolia tree on the other. Then I followed that road for a few minutes and Darden’s was a red store building on the left.
I seemed to understand the directions clearly enough and started down the road in search of the best ham in Isle of Wright county.
The directions were actually clearer than one would think when you were “on the ground.” I felt we were on the right path but Villainette #2 after about 10 minutes of driving thought that we were lost. I told her my infallible ham-sense told me we were getting closer. Sure enough as we approached a crossroads I saw a complex of buildings on my left and just knew one of them was Darden’s Country Store. We approached these buildings from behind and I told Villainette #2 that the buildings up ahead were where we were going. She demurred and said that it looked like a couple of old barns and an old equipment shed full of tractors. There was “no way” that was the place.
But as we approached I knew we were in the right place. We slowed down at the crossroads and I looked over at the red building. A sign over the door proclaimed that this was “Darden’s Country Store – Since 1952.”
We pulled into the small gravel lot in front of the building and got out of the car. Darden’s Country Store is a one and a half story building. You could tell it was originally a bright red color that one would associate with a bright barn. But the years had faded the paint. It wasn’t faded to pink, but it was a washed-out red. We walked up the two steps to the screen door and let ourselves in.
There was a long counter running parallel to the wall on our right. There was a cash register sitting next to a computerized Virginia Lottery machine. Down the counter towards the back of the store was a glass box with a glass lid about twelve inches high and 2 feet square. In it rested a wheel of cheddar cheese. At the end of the counter was a small refrigerated case containing a few ham and sausage biscuits. On the wall opposite the counter were three large refrigerated cases. The first contained Coke products. The second contained dairy products. The third contained an assortment of beers. On the back wall was a freezer that held a few packages of what appeared to be sausage. There were also some objects wrapped in butcher paper that might have been steaks or roasts. Between the counter on the right and the refrigerators on the left were three sets of double sided shelves like one would find in any convenience store. The shelves held up salty snacks, small household goods and sundries.
From a doorway at the far end of the counter came a short heavy-set woman. She was likely in her late forties. She regarded us with a look that immediately said “I’ve never seen you before – thus you’re not from ‘round here.” She did smile and said, “Hello. Can I help you with something?” Her tone held a hint of suspecting we were lost and seeking directions.
I announced who we were and added, “I’ve been told by a few people in town that if I wanted to taste the best ham in the whole county I had to come here. Are you Mrs. Darden?”
“Yes. I’m Dee Dee Darden. And you are in the right place.” She had a wide grin. Through her smile she said, “We just cooked one up yesterday for biscuits today. I’ve got it on the slicer. Would you like to try some?” I said we gladly would. She went into the back room were I could just catch a glance of her operating a large meat slicer. She came back out with a four generous slices of ham.
“You know we cure our own hams.” Dee Dee stated proudly. I picked up one slice. It was thin and moist. A small vein of fatty connective tissue held the two lobes of the piece together. I moved it slowly to my mouth. I held it for a moment and took a good smell before putting it into my mouth.
Now. Before going on I should let you know that I’ve had in my life quite a bit of ham. I’ve had Smithfield hams. I’ve had Country hams cured in Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. I’ve likely had Country hams from as many places in the United States as produce Country hams. I’ve had York ham in Britain. I’ve had Serrano and Iberico hams in Spain. (I’ve also had them imported to the US.) I’ve had three of four different high-end prosciuttos. I’ve had Westphalian ham. (NB: Sadly, I’ve never had a Jambon de Paris. The most famous of the French cured hams.) All of these different hams have something to commend them to you. Some are more savory than others. The Iberico ham is the most light and delicate. It is also the most expensive with a regular sized ham (about 15 lbs) costing you about $400. The Smithfield is my favorite, perhaps because it is the most familiar to me. I know them and love them. I like the saltiness and the smoke. I like the faint traces of greasiness left on your lips after you eat a slice. I like the light peanut finish you get from the best Smithfield hams.
Well… This slice of ham that Dee Dee Darden cut for me was possibly as close to the platonic form of Smithfield-hamness as one is likely to come across. It was salty, but not overpoweringly so. It was moist. It nearly melted away as you chewed it. You could smell the smoke as you started to eat it, and you could make out the nutty flavor of the meat. It was a perfect slice of ham.
So perfect that I savored my slice a little too slowly and discovered that in the time I spent enjoying one slice my lovely daughter had downed her first slice and the other two remaining on the butcher paper.
“I believe that I’ve died and gone to ham heaven. I don’t think I’ve had a better piece of Smithfield ham ever in my life.” I could hardly get the words out as I was still savoring the taste of the ham.
Dee Dee called out to a man unseen in the back room. “Tommy why don’t you come out here and talk to this man? He likes our ham a lot.”
A balding man wearing a ball cap reading “Darden Country Store” came out from around back. He walked with a rather stiff gait. Like a man who had just a moment before been enjoying reading the paper or watching the game in his favorite chair before being summoned to other business. He came out and shook my hand then Villainette #2’s hand and introduced himself as Tommy Darden.
I told him how good his ham tasted and that he and his wife had come highly commended by folks in town. Tommy smiled and thanked me. Dee Dee then asked, “Would you like to see the smoke house and pick out a ham? We sell ‘em too you know.”
“Would I ever?! Please lead the way.”
Tommy led us out of the store and we started across the street. There was another reddish building there. It was about forty feet long by forty feet deep. It looked to be about a story and a half. The foundation came up about four feet from the ground and was solid rock. Above the foundation was beaded board running parallel to the ground. There was a single door offset towards the right side of the building. The door looked heavy and was secured by a massive lock. Tommy reached into his pocket and produced a key and opened the door. He reached through the door and flipped a switch.
The smell of smoke and salt and pepper and ham was heavy in the air. An old fluorescent light flickered to life in the far corner of a room that was about 20 x 20. There was a worn stone floor with signs of fires. There was a deep sink along the wall to the right of the door. There were two industrial steel work tables in the room.
Hanging from a lattice-work of rafters were hundreds of hams. Above the hams hanging about a foot above my head I could see another lattice-work of rafters about a full story up. That lattice-work was also filled with hundreds of hams.
I was probably looking at 500 hams. Some, close to the door I came in through were fully cured. The ones towards the back of the room looked as though they were freshly coated with pepper and were still pretty “fleshy” colored.
Tommy began to talk. “I cure about 800 to a thousand hams a year. My family used to raise hogs and do the slaughterin’ ourselves. But it came to be a heap of trouble because all we really wanted were the ham legs. It was harder to use up all the rest of the hogs. So I met with the people at the main packing plant and arranged to buy about 1000 hams from them every January. I go down there and pick out the ones I like the looks of and bring them here. Lemme show ya.” He walked us over to a door in the wall to the left of the door we entered through. We were in another 20 x 20 room. This room, like the other, was filled with hanging hams. But this room had no sink or work tables.
Tommy described how he covered the floor of this room with salt. Then he piles the hams on the floor and covers them with more salt. He makes sure all the hams are fully salted then he lets them sit. They sit for about 35 days depending on the weather. He noted that this is in January, so the smokehouse is pretty cold. If the weather is wet he has to let the hams sit in salt for longer. This year they sat until the middle of February in the salt. When the hams have cured in the salt for long enough and have given up a lot of liquid, he wipes them down and peppers them. Then he hangs them to cure further. Tommy explained that most people smoke the hams at this point. But he likes to let them dry further. He likes to see them “sweat” a little before they get smoked. I’d never heard of this so I inquired further of what he meant by “sweat.” Tommy explained that there is still moisture in the fatty layer of skin on the ham – even after the salting. And there is some moisture left in the meat. He likes to hang them and he waits until a small drip of fatty grease appears at the end of the leg. This means that the ham has now given up the right amount of moisture and is ready for smoking.
Tommy pointed out that except for the 20-odd hams hanging right inside the door as we walked in, all the hams we were looking at had been salted this January, were pepped in February or early March and were being watched to see if they had started to sweat. My daughter pointed at a ham above her head and asked if this is what he meant by sweat. We walked over and hanging from the bone at the end of the ham was a small drop of hazy grease. Tommy congratulated my girl and said that that drop was exactly what he meant. When the majority of the hams had sweated he would bring in two large drums (one for each room in the house) and build the smoldering fire that would smoke the hams. He didn’t say for how long he smoked the hams (trade secret he said – he also didn’t mention what in addition to pepper he would cover the hams with – I imagine there is also some salt too).
After the hams were smoked they sit and cure in the smokehouse. He said the hams that were ready were about 18 months old. He also added that he almost never has one last past 24 months – as they are all sold well before then.
Tommy then asked if we wanted to pick out our ham. He asked Villainette #2 if she would fetch him the big stick in the corner. She brought him a long pole – very white perhaps birch or pine? – with a small “v” shaped notch at the end. Tommy started examining the hams hanging near the door. He dismissed two or three as being “too small” a few more were deselected as being “too wrinkly – too much fat on ‘em.” Then he pointed out two that seemed just right. He spun them in the air with his pole and described them. He pointed to one and said, “I think you want this one here. It has a little of the ham mold growing on it. You ain’t ‘fraid of no mold are you now?” I said, honestly, that surface mold on a cured ham was harmless and no trouble to me. He said that this was our ham then. Using the notch at one end of the pole he grabbed the twine tied around the leg and looped over a wooden peg that fit above the lattice-rafters. He jiggled the twine and loosed the peg and then lowered the ham to my waiting arms.
We turned off the lights and locked up the smokehouse. As we walked back to the store Tommy said that he stood behind his hams and if for some reason we weren’t satisfied with it then give him a call and he’ll give us our money back. I thanked him for the guarantee and asked if he’d ever had to give anyone their money back. He said no that he hadn’t had to give any “sensible person who knew how to cook the ham” their money back.
We took the ham into the store and weighed it. It was 15.5 pounds. They wrapped it in butcher paper. And we concluded our transaction. As we turned to leave Dee Dee asked, “Ya’ll like sausage? We buy a few hundred pounds of good scrap and make our own.” I said we loved sausage. Dee Dee asked us to hold on. She walked to the back freezer and retrieved a 1 pound package of sausage. She said, “You take this so you have something for breakfast tomorrow.”
With that I had to give her a hug. I hugged Dee Dee and thanked her for everything. I shook Tommy’s hand and told him how much I genuinely enjoyed their hospitality and lesson in ham-making.
Then Villainette #2 and I got back in the Villainmobile and drove on back to Fredericksburg. All in all we drove a little over 300 miles to get our ham. (Well… Hams if you count the one that I got from the Smithfield store…) Regardless of the miles we probably traveled to a place were people enjoy doing things the old-fashioned way and take pride in producing the highest quality item they can. Tommy and Dee Dee are proud of their hams and the work that goes into making them. I am glad to have met them and been able to support someone doing a good thing.
By the way, I did fry up the sausage this morning and it was damned good. It had a wonderful flavor of pork and sage and fennel. I can barely wait until Easter when I cook up the ham and get a little bit of Darden cured goodness.
If you are interested, Tommy and Dee Dee will ship hams anywhere in the US. You just have to give them a call or drop them a letter and ask for one. They can be reached at:
Darden’s Country Store
16249 Bowling Green Rd
Smithfield VA 23430
deedeedarden - at - aol - dot - com
I know that I’ve found the people who will be supplying me with my hams for as long as they keep curing them.
Now back into character…