Holding to tradition requires a very large measure of faith, a certain level of tunnel vision, devotion to an ideal and the determination to be excellent. Nancy Newsom Mahaffey holds on to tradition. She is the third member of her family to serve as proprietor of a retail "general store," but the first to do so with a parallel operation using an internet storefront to span the worldwide web. The store is the framework, but the ham — what "the Ham Lady" does to pork — is the meat, the foundation and the sauce.
The Newsom family began to sell aged country ham out of the farm smokehouse. And, the market grew into a mail order business for hammaker Bill Newsom, Nancy's father. Along came new federal regulations to ship his products across state lines and Newsom did what had to be done with the facility to comply. However, as other ham producers learned the tricks of the quick cure trade, Bill stayed with the Newsom way...tradition — no nitrates, ambient curing with the weather and time enough to develop the flavor that food writer Peter Kaminsky was able to identify at a busy New York city restaurant operated by Chef Daniel Boulud, several state lines away from the small town of Princeton, Kentucky.
Kaminsky — whose interests and talents take him in many directions — has found himself on several occasions crossing the Newsom path, and in particular Nancy's, who is now the sole owner and proprietor of Col. Bill Newsom's Aged Kentucky Country Hams.
As the author of "Pig Perfect," the New York writer found himself on the trail of an adventure that took him across the south of the United States and then some, into the warrens of gourmets throughout the northeast and across the seas to Italy, Germany and Spain.
Kaminsky had a full introduction to Newsom's ham during a writing assignment for Food and Wine magazine and he gave full measure of acknowledgement to Nancy's efforts in his book. A chapter is written about her ham craft and other references are sprinkled throughout the book.
Kaminsky's story begins and ends not in chapters or pages, but for publishers and printers there must be a mechanics to it. The story is a quest.
And, so in chapter one, it begins..."Among the things I had hoped to accomplish in my life," he writes, "chauffeuring twenty-three pigs from Missouri to North Carolina was not one of them. But here we are, three men and a load of hogs barreling down the interstate that runs east out of Missouri into Tennessee. It is late afternoon in late summer, the prettiest light at the prettiest time of year."
Kaminsky was bound east with his load of Ossabaw Island hogs. And, in that journey east, he made a stop in Princeton parking the trailer of pigs in the shade of Nancy Mahaffey's back yard. Over a supper prepared in her kitchen, they talked about the hogs and curing traditions.
The quest for a perfect pig is told in Kaminsky's book and chapter two is about the hammaker's daughter. As he writes at the conclusion of chapter one: "Because I love ham so much, and because I love to travel, I set out on a journey in search of heavenly ham. Eight years ago, I tasted one in a small town in Kentucky. As I think back on it, that encounter really started me on my quest, transforming me from a casual ham tourist into a pork pilgrim. Proust had his madeleine. I had Newsom's country ham."
This is chapter two..........
I was in Louisville, Kentucky, with time on my hands. Out of boredom, I picked up the city guide that the Mariott Hotel chain had considerately left for me. My attention was drawn to a picture of a fin de siecle dining roam — all oak paneling and Tiffany fixtured — at the Hotel Seelbach. The chef, Jim Gerhardt, had, according to the caption, cooked at the James Beard House in New York.
Beard was, literally, a giant of modern American gastronomy. He stood six feet seven and weighed three hundred pounds. He lived on West Twelfth Street in Grenwich VIllage. Since his death in 1985, his home has served as a dining club-cum-food shrine. When a chef is invited to cook there, it amounts to a culinary Good Housekeeping Seal of approval.
I telephoned the Seelbach.
Gerhardt wasn't available, but his second-in-command, Mike Cunha, took my call.
I introduced myself: "I'm a food writer from New York and I love country ham. I saw that you had cooked at the James Beard House, so I figured you were the guys who could tell me where I might find one."
"I have two in the refrigerator, so I suppose I could sell you one. Why don't you meet me at the hotel?"
"How much?" I inquired.
"How does fifty dollars sound?"
"Sold," I said, reflecting momentarily that to anyone listening in, my ham purchase was going down like a dope deal. But the ham, Colonel Bill Newsom's country ham, turned out to be so good that a few slices served in the editor's office at Food & Wine magazine got me an assignment to visit Princeton, Kentucky, where the Newsom family make their hams, and where the current ham maker in chief, Nancy Newsom, has a country store, the kind where you can buy sausage, fruit, brooms, candy sticks, and laundry soap.
I had no idea where Princeton, Kentucky, was, but I assumed it was near Louisville. Gerhardt met me at the airport, and informed me that Princeton was two hundred and some miles down the road. "Not far from Paducah," he added by way of clarification, which would have cleared things up had I known where Paducah was.
"If you're going to build a menu based on the specialties of this region, which is what we are trying to do," Gerhardt observed on the drive, "you can't find anything more basic or special than a traditional country ham."
As a fellow ham idolater, I understood his enthusiasm. A country ham, full of the complex flavors developed in the course of aging, is one of the glories of American cuisine. Actually, "faded glories" would be more accurate, because the days of the small farmer or service-station owner having a few home-cured hams to sell are pretty much gone. So are the "real" Smithfield hams that once upon a time were fattened on peanuts and left to hang for a year. Today, by Virginia statute, "Genuine Smithfield hams are hereby defined to be hams processed, treated, smoked, aged, cured by the long-cure, dry salt method of cure and aged for a minimum period of six months; such six-month period to commence when the green pork cut is first introduced to dry salt, all such salting, processing, treating, smoking, curing and aging to be done within the corporate limits of the town of Smithfield, Virginia." Six months, in my opinion, is barely — actually not even close to — enough time to make a great ham.
Also gone, it would seem, are all the hog farmers in eastern North Carolina who used to hog down their peanut fields (i.e., let their pigs out in the fields to finish the harvest of nuts and greens). A hundred phone calls had turned up exactly zero farmers who fed their pigs the old-fashioned way.
Nearly seventy years ago, Rex Stout wrote "Too Many Cooks," a murder mystery in the course of which his hero, detective/gourmet/orchid fancier Nero Wolfe, delivers an address to a convocation of chefs. His subject: the contribution of the Americas to haute cuisine. Country ham tops his list.
The indescribable flavor of the finest of Georgia hams, the quality of which places them in my opinion definitely above the best to be found in Europe, is not due to the post-mortem treatment of the flesh at all. Expert knowledge and tender care in curing are indeed essential. They are found in Czestochowa and Westphalia more frequently than in Georgia. Poles and Westphalians have the pigs, the scholarship, and the skill; what they do not have is peanuts. A pig whose diet is 50 to 70 percent peanut grows a ham of incredibly sweet and delicate succulence, which well-cured, well-kept, well-cooked will take precedence over any other ham in the world.
You would have thought, with the dining revolution in America, that such country hams would have become a high-ticket gourmet item in the way that Spanish serrano and Italian Parma hams have. Despite the fact that all three are made from, at best, feed-lot pigs, and more often the inmates of confinement operations, long-cured domestic hams are less available in the American market than are their foreign counterparts. The peanut crop, once the prime source of pig nutrition, is now destined for human or beef-cattle consumption.
But even more significant than the change in the pig's diet, Americans associate ham with fat, so I think the
psychological calculus runs as follows: "If I am going to sin and eat a pork product, it might as well be European because that effete and decadent continent is more likely to produce a really sinful sin." In other
words, if Americans are going to eat pork, their premium hams will come from abroad but their day-to-day pork will be the conventional lean pork—i.e., as dry as bones—that the industry has put forward to counter the unjustified, bad-cholesterol rap of pork. I say unjustified because where the fat of grain-fed beef is rarely more than 40 percent heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, free-range pork, finished on a diet of acorns and grasses, can have up to 55 percent monounsaturated fat. Such fats, also found in olive oil, help raise the HDL (good cholesterol) and lower the LDL (bad cholesterol).
The American food writer James Villas wrote a piece in Esquire in the mid-seventies ("Cry, the Beloved Country Ham") that first piqued my interest in learning more about long-cured country ham. In that article, he sounded an alarm that proved to be false in one aspect but true in its overall perspective. It was his feeling that American country hams were so good (they were) that the FDA and the big meat companies would find a way to put the small producers out of business and appropriate the name "country ham"
for a high-priced, third-rate product.
The description he gave of ham making in that article tells the story of the way things were for this spectacular regional product.
In the old days the diet of most hogs included plenty of milk and if possible peanuts for soft texture, and lots of table scraps for flavor, hence the expression “slopping the hogs." Depending on locations and temperatures, animals are generally butchered during the first cold spell, around November and never before. Once processed the huge hams are hung bone side down for at least 24 hours, to allow the meat to drain and cool. If the weather remains cold fine, if not the shanks are wrapped in brown paper for protection against flies or spoilage causing skippers (insect eggs).
After this initial procedure, the hams are taken down, packed in a salt cure, which might have included other ingredients such as sugar, black pepper or mustard, and left for about a month at temperatures ranging from 28 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Then they are soaked in water, hung up again to dry, rubbed in pepper or wrapped to ensure further protection against vermin and insects, and smoked 4 or 5 days over slow burning hickory chips, before being left to hang in a barn or storage room to age under natural or atmospheric conditions for not less than a year.
Country ham makers still follow the same steps but with a more compressed narrative. They start with leaner pigs, usually from a factory farm. The green ham (fresh and uncured) has less fat than an old-fashioned porker, which means it cannot age as long as ham did in the old days; it will dry out before the flavors mature. As for the danger that Villas foresaw of the big players in meatpacking horning in on the gourmet market, this never happened. Long-cured ham is something the accelerated factory-to supermarket system cannot afford time-wise. Filling the vacuum left by the lack of country ham, prosciutto, and, more recently, serrano hams have captured the premium-ham niche quite effectively.
There are fewer American ham makers now than there were in 1974 when Villas wrote, and their hams are rarely aged as long as they used to be. Smithfield, a name that once meant hams made from pigs raised on peanuts and hung for a year and a day, now means neither of those things, and the fine old Smithfield Company has the biggest operation in the country of environmentally ruinous hog factories.
Newsom's and a few other traditionalists who have found their way into the gourmet back eddies of food culture still exist, but barely so. We Americans have not been raised to treasure ham as the elite food that the Spaniards feel it to be. Where a first-rate jamon iberico de puro bellota (Iberian ham from acorn-fed pigs) might fetch $300 from a public of educated and passionate consumers in Spain, hams such as Newsom's will fetch, at most, $59.95. Iberian ham, as of this writing, cannot be imported into the United States because the immaculate and hygienic Spanish slaughterhouses that I visited were not built according to USDA standards. That
Newsom's makes its ham without adding nitrates, a preservative that the USDA requires unless the maker
can meet very stringent conditions, and the fact that their hams can age so long, make them both remarkable
and delectable, which is how the Hotel Seelbach chef, Jim Gerhardt, came upon them.
"We were tasting as many Kentucky hams as we could. Newsom's flavor profile knocked me out [it is cured only with salt, sugar, and hickory smoke — no pepper, no added nitrites]," Jim remembered. "I called Nancy Newsom and she said, ‘You know we have always sold a lot of our hams in New York and California, but we don't get as much call for them in Kentucky."'
"Why is that?" Gerhardt asked.
"Twenty years ago, a chef came from New York on a ham-tasting tour. He said ours was the best he'd ever tasted and he began to order them and so did his friends."
"What was his name?"
"Beard . . . James Beard," Newsom replied. It was a sufficient second opinion for Gerhardt.
When we arrived at Newsom's store in the pretty little town of Princeton, Nancy, a beautiful dark-haired woman with a quick laugh and a friendly drawl, ushered us in and led us behind the meat counter and into the back room for "a vertical ham tasting." Assisted by Eddie Thompson, who had boned and sliced the store's hams for thirty-seven years, we tried hams that had
been aged ten, fourteen, eighteen, and twenty-two months. I had never eaten such old hams; in fact, I had been told that they were impossible to produce because the meat would become too dry and hard. But the Newsom ham house sits near swampy low ground, which accounts for a providential amount of humidity that keeps the hams moist for longer periods of time. All of the hams Nancy offered us were good, but the oldest ham had a complexity of flavor that stood out from the rest.
Having whetted our appetites, we piled into Nancy's pickup and drove to a shady street where lunch awaited at her parents' home. Her mom, Jane, welcomed us in the soft, lilting accent of her native Mississippi. Her dad, Colonel Bill (do something noteworthy in Kentucky and they make you a colonel), was in the kitchen frying up the ham and making redeye gravy.
"You fry the ham steaks till the fat is clear," the tall and lanky old man explained. His chiseled features reminded me of the New Hampshire cliff known as "the Old Man of the Mountain." “Then you add coffee and flour for thickening to make the redeye."
Though simple in the making, in its taste, redeye gravy (so named for the "eyes" of fat that form when dark coffee is added to the pan drippings) is a very sophisticated sauce. The burnt bitterness of the coffee exactly counterbalances the saltiness and fattiness of the meat. It probably doesn't need thickening, but in the South, thickening sauces with flour is an article of faith.
When Colonel Bill had finished his preparations, we adjourned to the dining room, where lunch was laid out on a serving table in a sun filled nook. The light was diffused through sheer white curtains; the full bowls and platters steamed; the blue of the china plates stood out against the lace tablecloth. Along with the ham and redeye gravy, we ate crisp and tart fried green tomatoes, Sevin top turnip greens (a local
variety), sliced sweet onions, and buttermilk biscuits covered with spoonfuls of sweet and flowery-smelling sorghum molasses.
"I suppose you'll want to see the ham house," Colonel Bill said by way of signaling the end of the meal. We followed him through the backyard to what Nancy referred to as his ham “treasury," a building the size of a large garage.
"I was in France during the war," he said to me as we walked. "Saw Europe. Best time of my life." I took his confidential tone to mean that he had raised some hell back then. It was the first of three opportunities he took to share this information. He
must have had a really nice time.
We entered the smokehouse. From floor to ceiling, the dimly lit, ghostly room — as still as a choir loft in an abandoned church — was filled with hams, two thousand of them. Like the foam on rows of beer steins filled to overflowing, golden-white and blue molds clung to the hams. The cascade of molds reminded me of a limestone cave, cool and silent, full of stalactites. You find such chambers all through the valleys of the Midwest. Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher lost their way in one.
Colonel Bill spoke, not so much breaking the spell as carrying it forward as he explained his ham-making process. In late winter, he said, the hogs are slaughtered and the fresh hams are cured in salt. They are smoked in the spring. The critical steps in their maturation come with "the July sweats," when, during the hot months, the flesh of the ham expands into the outer covering of mold. In the winter, the meat contracts, drawing with it taste-enhancing enzymes.
Interestingly, the other jewel of the Kentucky table, bourbon, relies in similar fashion on the seasons of hot and cold. In the summer, the maturing bourbon mingles with the charred inner layer of the oak aging barrels. Then, in the winter, liquid is drawn back through the charcoal, carrying notes of woodiness and a smooth smokiness.
Gerhardt and I took a ham from the rack and inhaled deeply, almost reverently. Colonel Bill stepped forward, as did Nancy. We smiled at the camera that Mike pointed at us. I still have the picture.
The rows of moldy hams, fading off into misty blackness; the smoky wisps from the dying hickory fire; the gaunt old man — it looked like
a waiting room for the afterlife.
That was eight years ago. Nancy, now the only woman colonel
in the ham business, has divorced and goes by Nancy Newsom Mahaffey. Colonel Bill has since passed on. Eddie Thompson too. As Nancy put it, "I was with him to give him a kiss good-bye when he went to meet the angels." She comes up with these sayings as her natural way of speaking. Old-fashioned, of the country, personal. As for her hams, to this day, they set the bar for America. In Spain, her hams would be a million-dollar business. Here she just gets by.
I get the sense with Nancy and her hams, as with so many artisanal producers, that if the traditionalists can stay afloat and hang on for a few years, the growing movement for quality food will stabilize their businesses. In much the same way, the top restaurants in France have helped the smallest and oldest cheese makers manage to remain afloat.
If the Nancy Newsoms of the world go under, in five or ten years, some true ham believer who has just graduated from culinary school is going to set up his or her own business, painstakingly re gathering the knowledge that the Newsoms have had for generations.
We are at a point in culinary history where the promise of a return to the old ways needs to be preserved. Soon the old masters will be gone and, like students of a dead language, we will have to reacquire their knowledge all over again.
Perhaps you cannot see such tradition, but you can surely taste it and feel it. During a meal late last year with my friend Pascal Vittu, an expert in traditional French cheese making, I served him a few slices of Newsom's ham. With it, we savored an Epoisses cheese that smelled like old socks. With fresh-baked crusty bread and a chilled albarino, we were adrift in a haze of well-fed well-being.
"My teacher Bernard knows where we can get spectacular ham in France," he said. "There's this cheese maker near Burgundy . . ."
I had heard enough. The promise of great ham, French cheese, and Burgundy on its home turf: I couldn't think of three better reasons for a trip. I did not know it at the time, but it was Pascal's invitation that marked the beginning of a yearlong pork pilgrimage.
This chapter is reprinted here with the author's permission.
Pig Perfect...... Encounters with Remarkable
Swine and Some Great Ways to Cook Them
by Peter Kaminsky
published by Hyperion
released May 2005
For additional information about Peter Kaminsky see the Chefs Page on this site.