We were in Atlanta for the annual Atlanta Food & Wine Festival a few years ago. The folks who started this up, have hit the sweet spot on all manner of Southern cooking and drinking with this fest. My son Justin and I were busy as bees over the 3 days and nights with various events --- a dinner at the “Optimist’s Club”, a “nose to tail” demo on whole fish grilling at The Loews Hotel and finally a farewell party Sunday evening called “A Chorus of Greens” hosted by Atlanta star chefs, (and genuinely fine folks!) Annie Quatrano and Linton Hopkins.
We did attend a few classes as well. One was on making Country Hams.
The person many American chefs look up to on that subject is a gentleman from Madisonville, Tennessee named Allan Benton. The list of his fans would fill up a… pork barrel. He said at one point in his homespun presentation, “I’ve nearly starved to death doing this job…until now”.
I’m glad he had the 'country steel' to hang on! Mr. Benton was joined on stage with 6 chefs from throughout the South who each had a ham they were carving from when we entered that porcine perfumed hotel conference room. Chicago based chef Art Smith had just handed me a ham filled biscuit not an hour before this class but it didn’t abate my lust for these works of edible art.
When I was about 19 I started hitchhiking with a couple of buddies on a pretty routine basis. One of the routes I came to know well was the one between my hometown in Northern Illinois and my soon to be adopted one of Key West, Florida. One of my pals was from Cincinnati…so we routinely rested up and re-fueled there...complements of his mother’s refrigerator and his step-daddy’s beer cooler.
Despite the quicker speed of the massive U.S. Interstates… we often got off...and hit the little two-lane “blue highways” to slow down...and have a look, a smell and a taste ... of America.
I remember traveling through western Kentucky very near the Southern Illinois border one beautiful spring day and passing through the town of ‘Metropolis’, (where they had a big painting of Superman on the water tower) and another named ‘Monkey’s Eyebrow’, (named for reasons I still don’t know). It was in the town of Cadiz that I began to understand the allure of country hams. We entered a kind of General Store meets Luncheonette. A gentleman in his 80’s and smoking a white pipe was slicing up some fine ribbons of ham near the cash register. Seeing my interest, (via my twitching nose)...he offered a portion right off the ancient blade. I took it and it changed me.
The folks who make them start with about a 50-pound section of pork meat. It is, somewhat troublingly, called a “green ham” at this point. Burying them thoroughly in a salt, sugar and/or pepper mixture for up to 3 weeks is next. They are not injected, which is a cheap, quick fix suitably only for commercial grade hams. Great hams take time, almost a full year in fact.
Back at the Atlanta Festival there was a map printed by the good southern chefs doing the ham demo. There were hams from 11 Southern states.
The only one missing in terms of representation was...ours.
Ham Master and James Beard Awarded Chef Linton Hopkins looked me squarely in the eye and said with the softest drawl but clearest intent, “Hope to see Florida in here next year”.
The challenge lies before us.
I’m Norman Van Aken and that’s…. My Word on Food ©.
Copyright © by Norman Van Aken, 2014
© 2014 Norman Van Aken. Photo credit by author. Like this? Check out WLRN.ORG where many more of my shows are posted and listen Live on Saturday Mornings around 8:30 a.m. at 91.3 or 91.5 FM.