Newsom’s traditions find a fit at World Ham Congress

Displayed in a glass case now in the rarified air of a museum in Aracena, Spain, a city 6,000 years old, a Newsom’s aged Kentucky country ham represents the traditions of ham curing at its most artisanal in the United States.

Presenters at the Fifth World Congress of Dry Cured Hams noted that it is Newsom’s ham that is most like its European counterparts in tradition, style and taste.

Two of the presenters at the Congress were Americans, who have become familiar with the Princeton produced ham. Harold McGee, a columnist with the New York Times and a food scientist, opened the seminar portion of the three-day ham symposium, and Peter Kaminsky, an author of several books, television producer and columnist with the New York Times, offered the wrap-up session for the Congress. Both have high regard for the local product from the Newsom family.

McGee, who recently discovered the local ham, talked to the producers, food connoisseurs and preser­va­­tion­­­ists gathered in Aracena about Newsom’s ham and the ham industry in the United States. He put Newsom’s in a class of its own.

Kaminsky, who has visited Princeton on more than one occasion to talk to Nancy Mahaffey, gather information for articles, arrange for hams to be cured and enjoy the flavor of the Newsom cure, had long ago put Newsom’s in a class of its own in the book “Pig Perfect.” He said it was a visit to Newsom’s that launched his quest for the best around the world and his book has sent many in search of the perfect pig to the Newsom counter.

“It was such a wonderful honor for me, and I was indeed privileged to be the first American ham producer invited to attend in the 10 years that the Congress has been in existence. In Spain, Jamon (ham) is a tradition, but not just that, it is in some areas a way of life,” said Mahaffey.

Ham has been a tradition for the Newsom family since the 1700s, when the Newsoms brought the Virginia process with them to settle in Kentucky with a land grant in the pioneer region that later became Christian and Caldwell counties. The first Newsom ancestor in America was a William Newsom, who arrived at Jamestown, Va., in 1642.

“I never would have believed it would come to this. We have just been trying our best to preserve the way we do ham — the natural cure, the artisan, ambient weather way. We are fortunate that food writers, chefs and our customers seek us out. In Spain, it’s a whole culture, a whole industry dedicated to preserving the Jamon tradition,” said Mahaffey.

Her invitation to the congress had come in the final stages of planning the event. Miguel Ullibarri, one of the individuals helping to publicize and organize the congress, which is presented every two years, was contacted by cookbook writer Mark Scarbrough for some information about ham and mentioned that if the Congress was thinking about an American ham, it should be Col. Newsom’s Aged Kentucky Ham — the ham that Nancy Newsom Mahaffey had been curing since 1987, when her father Bill Newsom retired from the business that his father H.C. Newsom had started in 1917.

Ullibarri knew of Mahaffey, had heard of Newsom’s though he had never talked to her before. Both — the “Hammaker’s Daughter” in Princeton and Miguel, his guide to the pork of Spain — were subjects who figured prominently in Kaminsky’s Pig Perfect.

So the invitation was anxiously extended. At first Mahaffey thought that the Congress just wanted a ham for display, but that was not the case at all. Of course, they wanted the ham, but just as much they wanted the American woman who produced the authentic, artisan ham of America’s ham curing traditions. “They extended an invitation that included my travel and accommodations for several days. They treated me royally, and they were really delighted to have an American ham,” she said.

“The day that I visited the Jamon museum, television crews were there filming members of the Congress talking about my ham. In at least three sessions of the Congress, my ham was a topic of discussion. It truly was a wonderful thing to know that a small business from Princeton, Ky., was held in such esteem.”

Mahaffey said that the trip included some sightseeing, of course, and in Spain the hogs and the hams are a major part of the sights to see. She saw the farms, the pigs raised in groves of trees, the salting rooms, the curing facilities, the industry, the museums and the ritual of Jamon.

“It is a very different world,” she noted, “even in the poorest home, there is wealth if they possess an aged Jamon.”

Mahaffey said that she particularly remembers one narrow cobblestone street of Jabugo that exuded the essence of Jamon, surrounded those who passed through with the wonderful smell of the aged ham.

“Everyone eats cured ham, every day,” she marveled.

In the photo Newsom’s Aged Kentucky County Ham (left, front) occupies a glass museum case alongside Spain’s finest Jamon.

(This story appeared in the June 3, 2009 edition of the Princeton Times Leader.)