Tennessee and Kentucky are the Spain and Italy of the United States ... at least when it comes to ham. These states known for their superlative pork product output are part of the Ham Belt. Though this phrase evokes an image of a plump little piggy stylishly cinched at the waste, the world's Ham Belt actually refers to a swath of the globe that experiences mild winters and hot, humid summers—prime climatic conditions for the dry-curing of hog legs. This temperate span encompasses most of China, much of eastern and central Europe, and in the United States covers North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and Missouri. Tennessee and Kentucky are smack-dab in the heart of ham country.
Country ham is dry-cured, but not all dry-cured ham is plain ole country ham. Those dry-
rubbed hog hind-quarters that are cooked before leaving their curing facility are still considered country hams, but they're no longer in the same elite category of dry-cured hams such as Jamón Ibérico de Bellota and Prosciutto di Parma. Uncooked, dry-cured country hams in Tennessee and Kentucky have a history and complex flavor profile that rival these prized salty meats of the Old World.
In 2010, a Broadbent ham that was named Kentucky State Fair Grand Champion was sold at auction for $1.6 million, at 16 pounds. And one of Col. Bill Newsom's Aged Kentucky Country Hams sits in a display case in Aracena, Spain, at the Museo del Jamón.
New World dry-cured hams are hung shank-side down so the meat dries into a more compact, bottom-heavy shape—what Americans would consider ham-shaped—with a resulting denser (meatier), moister middle. The face (where the leg was separated from the pig) of the ham is left uncovered, causing the ham to dry unevenly. This can make slicing difficult but also makes for a more interesting ham with flavor that varies from each muscle group. Many times the bone is removed from American hams, making it easier to separate and thinly slice each individual section. (Individualism. A prototypical thread of American culture so strong that it's even penetrated our beloved ham.)
Hams at The Curehouse in Louisville
Hams at The Curehouse in Louisville
Chef Jay Denham at The Curehouse
Ham Bar at Michael Paley's Garage Bar in Louisville
Michael Paley outside the Garage Bar
"We're not trying to replicate Spanish and Italian Hams," says Jay Denham, Louisville chef-turned-ham-maker and proprietor of Louisville's Curehouse, which puts out about 120 to 200 (sought after) hams a year. "There's tradition in Kentucky with country hams. Old timers would hang them up in their barns." Cure Master Denham says that for the most part hams are made the same way all across the world; curing is easy. So, much of his energy and resources go into sourcing and ensuring the pigs are fed well and correctly. To Denham, that's the single most important part of making superb ham. Many ham devotees agree that it's the pig and its feed that give American ham an unctuousness and depth of flavor that can surpass those from the wider known hamlands of Spain and Italy. Similarly to how Tennessee whiskey and Kentucky bourbon became icons, Denham wants his hams to have the distinct terroir of the American ham belt.
Denham's Curehouse has two sister companies: Woodlands Pork and Black Oak Holler Farm in West Virginia, where his heritage hogs are raised. Chuck Talbott is the hog farmer (professor of animal husbandry and all around hog guru) and the third hamigo is businessman and charcuterie diehard Nick Heckett. "Our animals are finished on acorns, walnuts, hickory nuts, paw paws, persimmons, grasses, roots, shrubs … We spend so much time on our forestry program to produce the right trees for the right mast. Our product only has pork and salt. If we start with sub-standard pork, we'll never have a great ham," says Denham.
The all-important "mast" that he speaks of refers to everything that ends up on a pig's bottomless dinner plate: the forest floor. The mast of fatty nuts and acorns rooted in the Appalachian forests are what give the hams their decadent texture and complex flavors. The breed Talbott raises is hybridized from the Ossabaw heritage hog, feral pigs native to an Island in Georgia for which they're named. The pigs have been bred for temperament and qualities such as maternal instinct as much as for size. "We typically do 60 to 100 pigs a year," says Denham, "harvested between October and January. We try to harvest pigs at 300 to 325 pounds. The average in America is 250. Our pigs gain weight at a slower rate, because they're running up and down mountains, turning their fat into intramuscular fat that gives flavoring and marbling." Woodland Pork pigs are harvested as 1-year-olds, then cure and aged for 18 to 24 months. It takes three years and a smorgasbord of mast for Curehouse's dry-cured hams to develop their distinctive, sumptuous flavor.
At FLyte in Nashville, Chef and Farmer Matt Lackey is curing his hams in house, slicing them thin and serving it with cured, pickled, and the "forgotten" beets from his family farm just outside the Music City. Chef Trey Cicoccia of Farmhouse is making his eggs even more devilish by utilizing country ham in his recipe. And Matt Bolus of the The 404 Kitchen pairs Benton's Ham with burrata, Burgundy truffles, and leeks.
While Denham builds the Woodlands Pork brand into a paragon of what Southern ham can be, Scott Witherow is doing the same for craft chocolate out of Nashville with his company Olive and Sinclair. Witherow's Smoked Brittle is an incarnation in cacao of how deeply entrenched "ham culture" is on the American portion of the porcine strap. As Denham did when he first decided to venture into the ham world, Witherow also worked with Allan Benton of Benton's Hams (Denham also learned from Nancy Newsom of Newsom's Ham) to develop Olive and Sinclair's Smoked Chocolate-Nib Brittle. "I think Allan is thought of as a kind of Grandmaster or Grandfather of country ham and bacon in the food world, not just in our region," says Witherow.
Michael Paley's Ham Board at Garage Bar in Louisville
Jonathan's Exum's Double Smoked Ham Dip with Sun Chips at Wiltshire on Market in Louisville
Olive and Sinclair in Nashville
Scott Witherow's Smoked Nib Brittle
Scott Witherow of Olive and Sinclair
At Louisville's Garage Bar—a Market Street hot spot—the garage is a bar three times over: a beer bar, an oyster bar, and a ham bar. Chef-Owner Michael Paley features the best of the belt at his quintessentially Southern counter: Benton's country ham, Broadbent ham, Meacham ham, and Edwards ham. "These hams are as much part of the Southern food culture as the great hams of Spain and Italy are a part of their national food traditions. American hams set themselves apart from other hams of the world through their process. The cured hams of The South seem to be uniquely regional and American. [They're] made by methods passed down by generations," says Paley.
Just down the street from Garage Bar, at Wiltshire on Market, Chef Jonathan Exum's divinely dirty Pulled Double Smoked Ham Dip came to fruition from his own f(ham)ily tradition. He used Holloway ham, Harper's ham, Coon Creek ham, and Broadbent ham before he started double smoking his own damn ham. "[My father] used the best parts [of the ham], then he decided to grind up the ends that were too dry and whip them with some mayo and mustard, and that was the first prototype for the ham dip. I took the methodology [of double smoked hams] and started playing with different woods and times and got the product I do today," says Exum. "It goes great with my house pimento cheese, by the way."
"As far as why the ham belt is awesome for ham," continues Exum, "I think it's pretty simple. Like me being inspired by my father, most of the ham producers' techniques and recipes go back generations, remaining true to a process that works with slight tweaks. And they take their time. If I'm not mistaken, most country hams are aged six months to a year, now that's slow food! And I think that ties into the region because most food in the South is made with love and we take our time, no point doing it if your not going do it right!"
Ham is as essential to Southern cuisine and culture as the hock is in a pot of collared greens. It's adored by the connoisseur and country folk alike. It's a delicacy as well as down-home. It's the food of gourmands and grand pappies. And for American hams, that fatty, nutty, salty, pink and white porky goodness all starts on the forest floor of Appalachia. Pigs truly are what they eat. American dry-cured country hams offer a taste of Tennessee or Kentucky or West Virginia. New World Ham Belt champions like Denham, and the other proud chefs of the belt who appreciate terroir and tradition, (along with those terrific, radiant, humble pigs) are making American dry-cured ham the finest in the world.