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Omnivorous: Ham Country

A pilgrimage to Trigg County, Kentucky, ground zero for American aged ham

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"You want to see some hams?" asked Douglas Freeman of Cadiz, Kentucky, as he ambled out of the barn. "We had it so hot and dry, a lot of 'em just shrunk up to nothing." The 80-year-old Freeman, four-time winner of the Trigg County Country Ham Festival, is a legend in this part of southwest Kentucky, which is known for producing aged hams on a par with fine European varieties such as prosciutto di Parma and jamon serrano. In the book Southern Belly, John T. Edge points to Freeman's hams as the pinnacle of the craft: "The meat is as sublime a treat as you are ever likely to sample: smoky, sweet, and bracingly salty if sliced and fried, salt-kissed and mellow if boiled."

When Freeman bought his land in the 50s, he raised his own hogs and sold their hams locally to pay the fertilizer bill—there were never any left over for the family to eat. After he won his first ham competition in 1983 his reputation grew and he began shipping them as far away as Japan. To meet both increased demand and federal restrictions, he began to buy his fresh, or green, hams from a USDA-inspected packing house. But like most small noncommercial producers, he ran into problems with inspection requirements for his curing operation and had to stop shipping across state lines, which is why you'll never find his hams (or any like them) at Fox & Obel.

So when a friend of mine decided he had to have one of Freeman's hams, we planned a pilgrimage to his farm, timed to coincide with Trigg County's 31st annual ham festival. In Freeman's ham house, a red fiberboard structure no bigger than a two-car garage, we found almost two dozen leathery haunches hung from metal crossbeams. The air was at least ten degrees warmer inside and smelled of decades of smoke and porky goodness. The hams are cured in salt and a bit of sugar for about three weeks in late fall, then smoked over hickory sawdust for another two to three weeks before they're hung and aged through the spring, summer, and fall. Except for one ham hanging in the corner that'd been there for ten years, Freeman's current batch was started last November. He was unhappy with the hot, dry summer because it inhibited mold growth. In ideal conditions the exterior of the ham blooms with mold, and the flesh sweats and contracts with the changing temperatures, pulling in enzymes that contribute to its flavor.

But a less than perfect summer wasn't going to stop him from entering a ham for the judging. Saturday morning, while the World's Largest Edible Ham Biscuit was baking in a giant mobile oven in the Bank of Cadiz parking lot, Nicky Baker was inspecting Freeman's ham and nine others outside the Cadiz Christian Church. Baker—a fifth-generation ham maker from neighboring Caldwell County—stuck each entry with an ice pick in several spots, withdrew the pick, and sniffed the shaft before sheathing it in a raw potato he'd stored in his front pocket. A ham should have a sweet, nutty smell, and Baker was trying to detect pockets where these might have gone bad; the tuber deodorized the sniffing stick. He also evaluated the hams by four other criteria: uniformity and desirability of the outside color, ratio of meat to fat, neatness and attractiveness of the trim, and general shape. A judge does not, however, taste the ham—if it smells good, he assumes it tastes good.

Fewer hams are entered every year in this contest, says Beth Drennan, co-owner of Broadbent Hams (broadbenthams.com), because "the older generation is dying out." Broadbent, Trigg County's large commercial ham producer and a sponsor of the competition, has joined the statewide effort to reintroduce the craft to kids; Beth's husband, Ronny, helped a 4-H group whose hams were also being judged at the festival. Traditionalists generally look down on commercial manufacturers of country ham, who use quick-cure methods that produce what are derisively termed "90-day wonders" or "chemical hams." But Broadbent has achieved a measure of respect: regulating temperatures and using nitrates as a preservative, it ages its hams between six and nine months. Last year one of its hams was grand champion of the Kentucky State Fair—the company's 12th title—and earned a record-setting $500,000 at a charity auction.

Just before noon a crowd began to gather around the tent. The Drennans consulted the tabulated results and announced the winners, from fifth place to first. This year dark hams won out over "blond" ones, a result Baker chalked up to his own personal preference. Next year, he said, a different judge might choose lighter hams. Freeman stood around chatting with the other contestants. "They say a perfect ham is pecan colored," he said. "Those hams don't look pecan."

"Black walnuts more likely," agreed a reporter from the Cadiz Record.

The winner was Tony Holland, who also won last year. A 50-year-old state highway inspector, Holland is a Cinderella story—this was only the second time he'd ever aged a ham. The prize was $50 and an engraved brass plate. Holland says he learned his technique by reading a book, How to Cure Country Ham (whose author credits Freeman for sharing his expertise). Posing with his champion ham, Holland told reporters he planned to eat it for New Year's dinner.v

For more on food and drink, see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com

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