When I was about 19 years old I started hitchhiking around America with a couple of buddies. It seems reckless to me now, but we were sheathed in the armor of youth and thusly protected.
One of the routes I came to know was the one between my hometown in Northern Illinois and my soon to be adopted one of Key West. One of my buddies was from Cincinnati so we routinely rested up and re-fueled there compliments of his mother’s refrigerator.
A number of times we got off the superhighways and hit the little two lane “blue highways”. I remember traveling through western Kentucky very near the Southern Illinois border one beautiful spring day and passing through the towns of ‘Metropolis’, (where they had a big painting of ‘Superman’ on the water tower, of course) and another called Monkey’s Eyebrow, (for reasons I still don’t know).
It was in the town of Cadiz that I began to understand the meaning of country hams.
Country hams may appear to be inedible. They are really very hard with some mold often marking the exterior. The folks who make them start with a large section of pork meat. It is, somewhat troublingly, called a “green ham” at this point.
Burying or rubbing them thoroughly in a salt, sugar and or pepper mixture for up to 3 weeks is next. They are not injected, which is a cheap, quick fix suitably only for commercial grade hams. Great hams take time. (Try a Benton’s Country Ham for the best I’ve had so far).
After curing they are hung in a smokehouse. Hickory sawdust is the preferred fuel in Western Kentucky. The smoky fires are kept burning up to 21 days and the hams turn a chocolate-brown color.
Yesterday we had a day off from the event that brought us to the beautiful area in South Carolina we are in this weekend. We picked up a rental car from the concierge and though we had a pretty late start for it we headed to Charleston for lunch. We had made dinner reservations for the newly opened “Husk” but with the long hours of work yesterday and the long drive from Kiawah Island to town and back we elected to switch to a lunch reservation. It was a very nice, fun and tasty lunch! We had a great server named Jen and practically had the place to ourselves since we arrived just before their lunch hours were wrapping up. They brought us most of the menu. It wasn’t an overtly serious menu with precious ramblings and terminology but the chef’s techniques even with items like “sliders and corn dogs” were exceptionally good and emblematic of the region. They care deeply about the American South at “Husk”. We will look forward to coming back for dinner next time we are back in Charleston. Tractor caps off!
We were happy but a bit stuffed when we left so we ambled the sunlit streets of this charming, historic city. Church bells peeled and folks in wedding wear hurried in various directions. The young women who walked in packs were the most animated. We ended up by the water’s edge watching little children frolic in a fountain there. Their carefree ways were infectious. Janet smiled as she watched them splash and shout. We walked for over an hour and a half before retrieving our car.
Justin drove our rental back as the sun was setting. We wound our way over the bridges and down the Island highway back to the incredible resort. We landed in the Lobby Bar and sipped some wine. A jazz trio played across the way. Many of the hotel guests were heading to the large event going on out on the resort’s massive lawn. We were invited but it felt nice to just chill by the fireplace. We got one plate of cheeses to share for the four of us. We had met the amazing jazz guitarist Earl Klugh at the dinner the night before. He was suddenly standing near our chairs looking a little lost. He recognized us, smiled warmly and we started to talk. He asked after a bit, “anyone sitting in this chair”. It was to my left and empty. “No Earl. Have a seat”. And he did. We talked about various things. Food and Music… the nature of art and audiences and of tasting some great Country Hams.
Recipe: Ancho Chile And Guava Glazed Smoked Ham
Norman Van Aken ©1992
Here is a recipe for “regular” ham but if you do get a “country ham” you could slice it paper thin and brush a bit of this glaze on each piece for added flavor.
Yield: Serves 10-12 (with leftovers)
For the Glaze:
Yield: 1 ¾ Cups
- 4 ancho chilies, stem and seeds removed, toasted and roughly chopped
- 12 cloves of raw garlic
- 1 ¼ Cups guava jam
- 3 Tablespoons Spanish sherry wine vinegar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 Tablespoon cracked black pepper
Put the garlic into a quart and one half of water with the chilies, and bring to a medium-high boil and reduce them until the water is almost gone, (about 50-60 minutes.)
Melt the jam in a small pan and reserve.
Now put the chilies and garlic into a processor and pulse. Add the jam, vinegar, salt and pepper. Process this in a blender or food processor. Reserve until needed.
For the ham:
- 1 smoked ham, butt portion
Either grill or bake the ham as you normally would but after one hour baste with the glaze then every 20 minutes until cooked through. Allow 2-2 1/2 hours.
Remove from the oven and allow to rest 10-15 minutes and cut into slices being sure to give your guests some of the dark, caramelized edges.
Notes: This makes for some memorable leftover ham sandwiches with a dollop of my Home Made Key Lime Mustard on a traditional rye bread of some toasted Cuban bread with pickles, tomatoes, romaine and such.
The glaze will cover one whole ham or it can be used on one half of a ham with the other half of the glaze lasting in refrigerator 6 months or more.