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That gnarly old hunk of meat to the left is my friend Rob Lopata. The sweet-smelling miracle swaddled in his arms at the Nashville Ramada Ltd. (guitar-shaped swimming pool!) is a genuine one-year-old 15-pound Douglas Freeman country ham. In this week's Omnivorous I wrote about Freeman and the 31st annual Trigg County Country Ham Festival in Cadiz, Kentucky (pictures attached). Rob adopted the ham from Freeman at $2.75 a pound on a recent road trip to the mid-south, and at the moment it's resting on an elevated baking rack on his dining room table, awaiting the day we portion, slice, fry, boil, and bake it, then simmer the hock in greens and beans.
I had the great fortune to buy the fifth-place winner of the festival's ham show, another 15 pounder made by Cadiz's Joe Oakley. (Joe's son Jason won fourth, and that's exactly where they each placed last year.) My baby is currently hanging from the ceiling in the laundry room, and the first thing I do every morning is open the door and breath deep the sweet perfumed air.
We also managed to visit Newsom's Old Mill Store in nearby Caldwell County. Ever since James Beard lauded Newsom's in 1975, theirs have been known as the ne plus ultra of artisanal country hams. Comparing a Newsom ham to a mass-produced commercial product like Smithfield is like placing a Kobe steak next to a can of Treet. We visited a bit with the gregarious Nancy "the Ham Lady" Newsom Mahaffey, who remembered Rob and his girlfriend, Kristina Meyer, from a previous visit. At one point we sheepishly admitted we'd just come from a tour of the Broadbent plant in Cadiz, where owner Ronny Drennan was smoking hundreds of hams. She said she knew something wasn't right, grabbing our pal Peter Engler by the collar and sniffing his shirt. "I smell the smoke on you," she said. "Ahm like a dawg."