Issue No. 4 December 2003
by Allison Radecki
On a gray and drizzly Saturday morning in September, my New Jersey telephone connected with Princeton, Kentucky and immediately brightened my day. I was a writer in pursuit of hog heaven, which many chefs and ham fans have joyously located here on earth at 208 East Main Street in the western corner of the Bluegrass State. My mission was a simple one: to learn about pigs and speak with Nancy Newsom Mahaffey, owner and proprietor of this pig paradise, Colonel Bill Newsom's Aged Kentucky Country Hams, an 85 year-old family business which reenacts historic tradition every year through the natural curing, smoking and aging of its (100 percent nitrate and nitrite free) prized ham products.
The quest to expand my ham horizons first led me to Peter Kaminsky, a New York Times contributing columnist, author and "ham idolater" to learn the basic facts of aged country ham. "Just like wine," Kaminsky explained, "food that matures develops more and more flavor over time. A salt cured country ham, full of the complex flavors developed in the course of a year of aging, is one of the glories of American cuisine."
Kaminsky should know. His book, "Pig Perfect: Encounters With Remarkable Swine" (due out next Fall from Hyperion Books) catalogs his lifetime love of all things pork. Featuring a history of barbecue, pigs, and a discussion of sustainable farming, "Pig Perfect" recounts Kaminsky's "personal odyssey" of pork, which has taken him around the globe. From Spanish ham houses lined with honey colored pork butts, to Ossabaw island (off the Georgia coast) where descendants of pigs brought to the New World by the Conquistadors still roam, Kaminsky has logged many miles in pursuit of the ultimate oinker.
On the day we first spoke, Kaminsky was readying himself for another pig pilgrimage, a road trip from Brooklyn to Missouri "to pick up 24 Iberian hogs and take them to the Carolinas." His goal was to try and approximate, through American curing and smoking, the flavor of the aged hams he had tasted in Spain. Evidently, this was no novice ham lover I was speaking with.
It was Kaminsky who pointed the Slow Food USA office in the direction of Newsom's artisanal products, which he discovered years ago while in Kentucky with time on his hands. A quick flip through a Louisville tourist magazine had him phoning a local restaurant for some swine sleuthing. "Yup. I have a ham," crackled the chef on the end of the line. "It's fifty bucks. Come on down." In the dark shadows behind a restaurant kitchen, in a transaction that seemed more like a dope deal than a legal ham handover, Kaminsky encountered his first Newsom's ham. He has been singing their praises ever since.
In between tales of his high ham adventures, Peter explained the basic facts of aged country ham production. The ham is a hind leg, cut long on the hock and high towards the loin. It may measure two feet in length and weighs from one to two dozen pounds. To cure meat is to treat it with salt in order to preserve it. Developed through necessity long before the days of refrigeration, aged country ham provided farmers with meat that would keep without spoiling over the winter months. The ingredients for the cure vary, depending on the state in which the ham is made. Some include black pepper and white or brown sugar in their cures. Not all country hams are smoked. Secret ingredients are often hinted at, with many country ham makers tight-lipped as to what specifically gives their product its unique tang and flavor. Cures, like passed down recipes for a fine Southern barbecue, are cherished heirlooms for families to protect and treasure. The salt mixture is rubbed into the meat, usually by hand, with the curing process lasting from thirty to fifty days, depending on the hamís size. After a period of time, which allows the salt to "equalize" throughout the meat, the ham is then smoked. Smoke acts as yet another form of preservative. After smoking, the ham remains raw.
The next step in a country ham's development is a trip to the ham house, where the smoked meat "hangs" for a period of time. Most farmers who cure their own hams wait at least nine months before eating them: some devotees delay up to two years. It is during this lengthy "hang time" where the real flavor magic takes place in this true "slow food." The chemical reactions that happen over the following months produce the fine flavors of an aged ham. Harmless molds of white, blue and gold hues grow over the hanging hocks. This mold is crucial to a country ham's taste evolution. During the "July sweats" of the hot summer months, the flesh of the ham expands into the outer covering of mold. In the colder winter weather, the meat contracts, drawing in with it the taste enhancing mold enzymes. Fat too plays an important role in the maturing of a country hamís flavor. "Fat, to a ham," explained Kaminsky, "is the equivalent of tannin to a Burgundy. If it has structure, the fat will allow the flavor to compound."
After absorbing all of this country ham history I was hungry, and even more excited to have a Newsom's encounter of my own. Within 24 hours of my first phone call to Princeton, I was chatting away with this third-generation Newsom. In the conversationís first few minutes she had me hooked with a tale of Christopher Columbus gnawing on a slice of cured ham during his famous voyage of 1492. Story time with a gourmet twist. What could be better? With gracious and personalized attention, in phone calls, in person or over the internet, Nancy Newsom Mahaffey is keeping a lost art alive. Selling only retail, and in limited numbers (naturally curing about 5,000 hams a year) Col. Bill Newsom's Aged Kentucky Country Ham draws customers from across town and across the country alike. The traditional flavors and traditional methods are what keep people coming back for more ó and Nancy is more than happy to explain how it all came to be.
Nancy's father, Col. Bill Newsom, took over the Princeton business in 1933 when he was 18 years old. He continued to run the mom and pop establishment, which was made nationally famous by James Beard, until 1987, conducting business across the counter and in the nearby smokehouse, where he cured his own hams. "The cure depends on the family," Nancy explained. The Newsom recipe came from Virginia, where most country hams were developed. "Our Virginia land was depleted from tobacco farming," she continued. "It wore the land out." A land grant eventually caused the Newsom clan to pack their belongings and move the family to Kentucky.
Newsom's method (a cure with only salt, sugar and hickory smokeóno pepper, no nitrates) was discovered in an old family will dating from the 1770s. The flavor is a mix of the smoke and the curing ó with the geographical specifics of the humid Princeton environment adding its own, signature touch. "As my Daddy used to say," Nancy added, "every ham house has its own mold."
The Newsom's is a low-ground ham house, not far from a swampy area. Whether it's due to the changeable Kentucky climate or the underground spring that runs beneath the property, extra moisture in the air allows the Newsom hams to say moist longer. All the hams are smoked in an iron kettle by Nancy herself, a job I can tell she relishes by the enthusiastic life in her voice. "As my best friend told me," she confided, "'Nancy, youíre the only person I know who can sit down in front of a fire and tell it to burn ó and it will!'"
In 1987, Nancy Newsom Mahaffey took over the store from her father and began to rebuild the family business on the cornerstone of its aged country hams. Today, Newsom's continues on its mission to practice the 'lost art' of naturally curing and aging hams, to which modern day commercialized methods cannot compare. (Whole hams average 15-20 pounds. When sold by weight, the price is around $4.39 per pound.) Nancy advises customers to soak the ham in milk or water before boiling or baking. This step restores moisture to the meat and reduces the salt content even further. To order a ham log onto www.newsomscountryham.com which sells the hams, as well as a variety of regional specialties available at the Old Mill Store.