When I was growing up, we always had a country ham for Christmas dinner in addition to the turkey and other fixings. I would always take a few paper-thin slices and eat them with a roll or the dressing. I did not LOVE the country ham, but I knew that the ham came from one of the hogs off our farm and my grandfather did LOVE it (plus it you could get a piece without fat–one of my biggest childhood(?) food dislikes). So, I liked it fairly well. Once my grandfather sold his hog farm and Smithfield implemented vertical integration, we did not have country ham at our holiday meals anymore.
Last year, we were visiting my cousin in Richmond at Thanksgiving and I saw a country ham in a Virginia agriculture products store. It was a fairly upscale store, but the smell reminded me of those country hams from my childhood. I have come to really like good country ham, especially on a biscuit or roll or in greens. So, I decided to buy a ham, cook it and serve some at a Christmas party we were hosting. I know we would have some left for Christmas dinner, too. It was fairly expensive, but we took that ham home and I scrubbed it, cooked it, and William carved it. It took most of a day to cook it and most of a night to carve it. I had no experience cooking a country ham, despite some knowledge absorbed by osmosis at those long ago holiday dinners. And, William had not experience carving a country ham. We also realized we’d bought a very large ham. It was really good, though, and it lasted us through the party, through Christmas dinner, through New Years celebrations (where we flavored everything we ate with ham), and through the next 4 months whenever we pulled slices from the freezer to use in meals.
This year, I did not plan to buy a country ham, but we went to Layden’s Store in Belvidere when we were visiting my family for Thanksgiving. When I saw his hams hanging, I decided we needed another country ham for the holidays. These hams were smaller (and cheaper) that the one from last year, but I got them to cut it in half since I knew a smaller section it would be easier to deal with. William also had them slice a few thick slabs off to fry up for breakfasts. I cooked this ham when we got home and William carved it. We now have lots of sliced country ham in the refrigerator and the freezer.
I LOVE pulling out some to use to flavor a meal or to put on a roll with mustard and brown sugar. I think of country ham as more of a condiment rather than a main part of a meal–it is so strong and salty. But, I really like having it around. I think we will make this something we do every year now. Maybe I will try different methods of cooking it (I did not realize at first there were different ways to cook a country ham, but there are). Maybe, one year, I will try to cure my own ham (I already have ideas). But, we will have it and I hope my children will appreciate it as part of our tradition.
What about you? Do you like country ham? Do you have a secret to cooking it? A favorite place to get your ham?