By Josh Moss,
April 2009 edition
The phone is ringing inside Newsom’s Old Mill Store. It’s a nippy February morning and somebody, somewhere, wants Col. Bill Newsom’s county ham, which is a common request for Nancy Newsom-Mahaffey to get. She’s used to the calls. “What country are you from?” she asks the man on the other end, the slightest drawl creeping into her voice. “Oh, OK, you’re in Hawaii.” Turns out the man used to live in Kentucky and tasted a country ham in the 1950s. His palate has missed the flavor ever since, but he heard about Newsom’s ham in Princeton, Ky., a small town more than 150 miles southwest of Louisville (and more than 4,000 miles from Hawaii), and hopes to find what he’s searched for decades to find. “You came to the right place,” Mahaffey, the “Ham Lady,” says. “I think that you’ll find that this ham has an old-fashioned flavor.”
The 53-year-old Mahaffey — who kept her married name even after her 23-year marriage ended in 1999 — is a kind, introspective woman who writes poetry about nature and has warm eyes the color of maple syrup. Her thick, dark hair covers her ears, and she smokes Doral cigarettes. When having a conversation, she’ll give your biceps the gentlest squeeze. She’s been running things since 1987, and her products are as popular as ever. There are country hams and prosciuttos and a barbecued version known as a “preacher ham.” Mahaffey sells about 3,000 hams annually, two-thirds of which go out in November and December. She starts praying in October. “I don’t make a lot of money, but it’s enough for a comfortable living for me,” she says. Out of the six figures the business pulls in, she keeps five digits.
In which states can you find her hams? “All of ’em,” she says. And recently, she shipped to Belgium, Canada and Puerto Rico and, last Thanksgiving, to a soldier in Iraq. The ham has quite the reputation. A decade before the 1985 death of famous American chef and food writer James Beard, whom many consider the father of American-style cooking, he praised Newsom’s ham in American Airlines magazine, helping to spread the word. Countless stores have been published since. In Peter Kaminsky’s book Pig Perfect, he devotes the second chapter to Newsom’s, saying, “As for hams, to this day, they set the bar for America.”
“We’re very much an enigma; we’re in it for tradition and integrity,” Mahaffey says. “Maybe we do set the standard for American ham.”
“It has a great reputation in the industry,” says Candace Cansler, executive director of the National Country Ham Producers Association. Some of Louisville’s best chefs have taken notice. Jim Gerhardt, the first Kentucky chef to use Newsom’s, recently returned to the executive chef position at the Seelbach Hilton’s Oakroom. Back in 1996, he was traveling the state looking for high-quality foods for the Oakroom’s menu. He came across Newsom’s. “It’s the best I’ve ever tried,” Gerhardt says.
It was Gerhardt who turned Mark Williams, Brown-Forman’s executive chef, onto Newsom’s. “It always blows my mind talking to (Mahaffey). She’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s going OK. We’re getting ready to be busy because Bon Appetit just named us the best ham in the world. And Bobby keeps calling.’ I’ll say, ‘Bobby who?’ And she’ll say, ‘Bobby Flay,’” Williams says, referring to the celebrity chef. “It just floors you when you talk to her because she’s so down to earth, and it’s such a small operation she runs.”
On Inauguration Day, Proof on Main’s head chef, Michael Paley, was in Washington, D.C., for the Kentucky Society of Washington’s Bluegrass Ball. He created dishes with Kentucky products such as bourbon, bison and fish. The menu also included Newsom’s ham.
The curing process has been in the Newsom family for centuries. Originally from England, Mahaffey’s ancestors arrived on the Virginia shores in the mid-1600s. By the late 1700s, on a 1,600 Revolutionary War land grant, they moved to Kentucky on the Caldwell-Christian County line. “My family has always been a family of workers. I think that goes back to their pioneer days,” Mahaffey says. “You couldn’t be a pioneer and travel as far as they traveled and not be gutsy.”
In 1917 her grandfather, H.C. Newsom, opened a general store that sold pickles, glassware, crackers in barrels, garden seeds, fresh produce and a few hams. “Everybody cued their own hams back then,” Mahaffey says. “That’s just what you did.” Today Newsom’s Old Mill Store is in the same set of buildings as her grandfather’s original. It’s a three-story structure from the 1850s that produced Civil War uniforms and, later, flour. The old mill equipment, dusty and out of action, still occupies the top two levels, which Mahaffey has considered converting into a museum.
The bottom floor is where she runs her operation. Hundreds of jarred items — jalapeno-stuffed olives, sweet onion pasta sauce, peach salsa, cherry cobbler — from mostly Kentucky vendors pack the shelves. There are handmade brooms and books with titles such as Cooking With the Horse and Buggy People. A meat counter remains busy throughout the day. In the back, there are areas where workers can clean and box up hams and send them around the world.
During breaks, two of her three full-time employees — that number increases to, say, seven around Christmastime to help assemble gift baskets — sit at a table near a front window and smoke cigarettes and reat the Times Leader or the Cadiz Record. Lonnie Robinson, a 51-year-old with big eyeglasses has been working in the store for more than 30 ears. “Our ham is not one that has any chemicals,” he says. “It’s just brown sugar and salt, just like they did a long time ago.”
Mahaffey’s grandfather died in 1933, and her dad, Col. Bill Newsom, then just 18, took over. He and his wife eventually turned it into a full-scale mom-and-pop grocery. Nancy and her brother, more than eight years her senior, grew up in a Cape Cod-style home nearby, where her 92-year-old mother lives today. Since 1963, the ham house has been in the back yard. Sometime over the years, Mahaffey says, her father, who died of Parkinson’s disease in 1999, perfected the ham-curing process. “My father came in and smelled like the smoke from the ham house. He smelled like that all the time,” she says. “He used to say the dogs loved him.”
The method she uses today is the same as it’s always been. Mahaffey won’t reveal which states ship hams to Princeton, but once they do, usually in January and February, Newsom’s applies a brown sugar-and-salt seasoning a few times. After spending some time absorbing the rub — “I’d rather not say how long,” she says — the next major step takes place in the hanging house behind a padlocked door. Nails on wooden stanchions hold thousands of hams. Mahaffey burns green hickory in an iron kettle several different times to fill the room with smoke. A mold eventually forms on each ham’s surface. “It fives it a more distinct flavor. It has more of an aged, pungent, musty flavor that comes from molds,” she says. “Each ham house has its own mold. A lot of commercial curers don’t like for mold to be on their hams.”
The entire process takes months, years even. “Whatever weather is happening outside, it affects my hams inside the ham house,” she says. Mahaffey won’t even sell a ham if it has not aged at least 10 months. (“That’s unheard of,” says Brown-Forman’s Williams.) Some hams remain in the hanging house for two years of longer. No artificial nitrates speed up the process. And, of course, a couple of tricks are confidential. “Military secrets,” she says.
“They’re one of the few hams that do the very old aging,” says Edward Lee, 610 Magnolia’s head chef. “Most of the country hams that you see do a very short cure, maybe a couple of months. Newsom’s is the only on I know that does a longer cure. It gets nuttier and saltier; it becomes much more complex. There’s many more layers of flavor. It’s the best in Kentucky, but, really, probably one of the best — if not the best — in the country.”
Lilly’s chef-owner, Kathy Cary, has been serving Newsom’s for 15 years. “You’re not rushing anything,” she says. “It’s doing it the old, ‘slow food’ way — they way it should be done.”
By age 19, Mahaffey was married and, a few years later, was raising two kids, now grown with children of their own. Her dad always worked her brother hard and never planned for his daughter to run things. “Dad wanted me to be a secretary,” she says. “I almost turned my head, put a finger in my mouth and gagged. It definitely wasn’t a Newsom man’s plan for his daughter to take over.” By her early 20s, though, Mahaffey was doing mail-orders by hand. “I can remember being pregnant with my first child doing that,” she said. At 26, she was working next to the men in the ham house.
Behind her father’s back, she calculated proportions of brown sugar and salt and took mental notes about the length of time each ham spent in the handing house. “I didn’t want him to think I thought he was ready to drop dead,” she says. “But somebody needed to know something about the hams if something happened to him.” Then in October 1987, an electrical fire destroyed the grocery. A picture of a flute-playing pig standing in a garden was one of the few items that survived the flames. “Dad said, ‘I’m done.’ I said, ‘Well we’re gonna have to open up somewhere because we have a full ham house of hams that aren’t sold yet.’ He told me to do it. And I did.” Though the grocery never reopened, Mahaffey’s been in charge of he hams and the general store, which she started next to the original location, ever since.
“Dealing with ham, it’s just an intuitive ability,” she says. “It has a lot to do with being connected to nature and being connected to weather. I’ll guess I’ll just say this: There’s more to the gene pool than we know.” And she never considered reworking the formula, though a minor expansion is in the pipeline. “I’ve stayed with the natural process because it wasn’t broken; it didn’t need fixing. I realized years ago that it was going to be a lost art.”
Mahaffey is in the back of the general store, where an employee is cleaning a 27-month-old, barley-fed, free-range ham that he’ll ship to food writer Peter Kaminsky in New York. Mahaffey still considers him a dear friend. The old wooden floor sags a little when you walk on it, and it’s so cold you can see your breath. Her son John, whom she calls John Boy, heads back to ask a question about the hanging house. He’s 28 years old with shaggy hair and a stocky build. He can pretty much do whatever needs to be done around this place. “If something were to happen to me,” Mahaffey says, “John would be ready to take over.” Which is something she hopes her son will do because the business would remain in the family. Besides, in the future she still thinks it will be viable enough for him to raise a family.
“My father used to say, ‘People are not stupid. They will come around.” There are people now looking for a flavor they’ve been looking for for years,” she says. “And they don’t find it until they find people like — I’m not saying I’m the only one out there — but find people like us.”
(Pictured above are Nancy Newsom Mahaffey and her son, John Mahaffey.)