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Caldwell County Boasts Newsom's Kentucky Cured Country Ham

By Dana McMahan

When H.C. Newsom started selling country items in his Caldwell County general store, the United States was poised to enter World War I and Woodrow Wilson was president.

H.C. died young, and the business passed to his 18-year-old son, Bill, who ran the store and gained the attention of famed chef James Beard in the 1970s, which led to Colonel Newsom's Aged Country Ham expanding to a mail-order business that still thrives under the direction of his daughter, Nancy Newsom Mahaffey, who is affectionately known far and wide as "The Ham Lady."

That's the brief tale. The real story extends back to 1642, when the Newsom family arrived in Virginia from England and first began curing hams. "The process has changed little since the 1700s, when salt and brown sugar were used together in what was called the sugar-cured method," Nancy says. "By today's standards, people would think 'honey-baked.' "

Beard, beginning in 1975, used Newsom's hams and wrote about them often, giving Newsom's the credibility needed to succeed. In 2009, the company was invited to participate in the fifth World Congress of Dry Cured Hams in Aracena, Spain, and is the only U.S. ham displayed in the Jamon Museum (in Spain).

"We are the smallest national ham-curing business left and the only one using the old-fashioned methods -- using just salt and brown sugar and hickory smoke," Nancy says. "Our process was born before nitrates were even discovered."

There is also no climate control used. "It's true: The hotter the summer, the better the ham," she adds.

This year's batch is bound to be good.

October 2012--Kentucky Monthly