IT STARTED OUT a couple of hundred years ago with a bunch of Indians teaching the white man what to do with a razorback hog. It started out as one man here, one farmer there, and a way to preserve venison.

And today it's all high finances and big industry. In fact, it's ITT and C. Wyatt Dickerson. Or it was C. Wyatt Dickerson until he was forced to get out. But It's still ITT. And Swift.

It's the Smithfield ham business. And the Virginia ham and the country ham. It's fast, it's efficient, it's booming. And most of all it's slick.

It's slick all the way from the affable, smooth-talking executives of each of the four big meat-packing firms in Smithfield to the man at Gwaltney who oversees the curing, smoking and aging of the Smithfield hams and who has a title right out of a commercial - the Curemaster.

The most famous of the Virginia produced hams (although the least ubiquitous) is the Smithfield ham. Its flavor is salty, smokey and slightly gamey - a potent taste that lingers in your mouth and nostrils so that after you have eaten several paper-thin slices, all the food you sample for the next couple of days will taste like Smithfield ham. It is a flavor that takes some getting used to.

It is a long piece of hog hindquarter, weighing an average of twelve pounds, starting up in the animal's loin and ending far down the shank.

It is relatively old piece of meat, having been aged a minimum of six months, according to the law. It is covered with pepper and, very often, a spotty layer of green and grey mold, though when you see it hanging in one of Virginia's country stores or supermarkets it is often clothed in a picturesque cloth sack, complete with fake antique lettering offering such suggestions as "store in Spring Houfe."

All of this sell for an average of $2.65 a pound, better than two-and-a-half times what you'd pay for an ordinary ham.

Though you may have come to believe otherwise, Smithfield hams are not generally made from Smithfield hogs, but from animals shipped from the Midwest. They're not fed peanuts, much less allowed to graze in the peanut fields. And they're not smoked over hickory. In fact, the majority of the plants use white oak. Some packers have been fortunate enough to find hickory sawdust they can add to the fires and thereby call the meat hickory smoked.

The hams that come out of Smithfield today are still celebrated gourmet items, still unique among meats. The people at ITT Gwaltney, at the Smithfield Packing Co., and at W.D. Joyner, owned by Swift Foods Inc., aren't fools. They know when they have a good thing.

They have turned what was once a craft into a science.

Entering Smithfield along Route 10, the first thing you see is "packer's row," a mile-long stretch of smoke belching, steam-wafting, bacon-smelling plants that teem with activity and give Smithfield the look of a factory town.

"Packer's row" ends at Pagan's Creek. In the old days Smithfield just ended there, and all those on the wrong side of Pagan Creek couldn't use the name to sell their hams - but that's another story.

Today Gwaltney and the Smithfield Packing Co. are side-by-side. Next door is Smithfield Ham and Meat Products, owned by J.C. Sprigg, the last big independent packer in town. The two former companies are the dominant businesses in Smithfield.

The people at Gwaltney have spent a great deal of time, advertising money and energy convincing everyone who lives on the East Coast that we should be fortunate to be able to buy their meats. Gwaltney only sells on the East Coast.

The Smithfield Packing Co. was started by a man named Luter who used to work for Gwaltney back in the good old days. Now it's owned by a corporation called Smithfield Foods Inc. (Back in the late Sixties it even went through the hands of wheeler-dealer C. Wyatt Dickerson.)

Among other things, the food corporation owns the Smithfield Inn, a venerable and highly regarded restaurant that may well have the best southern cooking between Washington and Atlanta.

ITT bought out Gwaltney in 1970, Smithfield packing Co. was sold in 1969 and Swift Foods Inc. bought out Joyner way back in 1936.

Though Gwaltney brought big business to Smithfield hams, the inventor, if there was one, was Mallory Todd. In 1779 he shipped out the first hams from Smithfield to Bermuda. But Todd's heirs eventually made an enormous, if understandable blunder - they moved his thriving Smithfield business to the state's capital. Todd's is still going strong up in Richmond these days, but of course the ham does not qualify as a true Smithfield ham. It's not produced within Smithfield's corporate limits.

While Todd's was getting established up in Richmond, the Gwaltney family was getting established in Smithfield - and then some.

The first Old Man Gwaltney started out as a Virginia peanut farmer. He quickly became the biggest one around - sort of the Smithfield version of the Carters in Plains.

Exactly how the evolution from peanut farming occurred in the Gwaltney family is a little unclear, but the most logical step came with neighboring farmers who raised hogs and wanted to run their animals in Gwaltney peanut fields after harvest.

The Gwaltneys pretty soon started realizing that there was money to be made here, and began to buy slaughtered hogs from the farmers, probably an arrangement that went hand-in-hand with the use of the peanut fields. The meat was processed and smoked by the Gwaltneys and business, took off so well that by 1918 the family had gone whole-hog, if you'll pardon the expression, into the ham business, divesting themselves of nearly all their peanut fields.

Things were going along just fine. The Gwaltneys became leading citizens of Smithfield, both politically and financially. The family owned the local bank, the telephone company, the water company and numerous other enterprises.

The ham business was booming for everyone else in Smithfield. Apart from the Gwaltneys, some five or six other lesser companies established themselves and discovered gold in ham.

Then prohibition hit. It was tough on the meat packers because much of their business came from hotels and restaurants, which started closing up when liquor bans robbed them of their business.

Pretty soon, one meat packer fell, then another, and so on, until the town of Smithfield started hurting. But the Gwaltneys had diversified, and they survived.

In 1925 a stranger came to town. His name was Jimmy Sprigg. In his twenties, Sprigg was an adventurer of sorts who escaped Mexico just ahead of revolutionary bullets. Actually, he was a geologist who'd spent six years in Mexico resurveying and excavating ancient Mayan mines for untapped lodes.

But his worst offense was that he was, and still is, a "foreigner," whose parentage was half northern and who was reared in Texas. He bought what is now Smithfield Ham and Meat Products.

"I was a foreigner all right," Sprigg recalls, "and they did everything they could to keep me out of town.

"You see, Gwaltney owned the big business around here. He was the powerful guy. He paid the local farmers far less for their hogs than they could get anywhere else, but in those days, there was no refrigeration, and they slaughtered all the animals on their farms, so they had to sell them right away to a local source - and there was Gwaltney. "I arrived November 22, 1925, and the fight to keep me out started. That's when they decided there had to be a law keeping packers from using the Smithfield name unless they were in the town of Smithfield. The plant I bought was 150 feet on the other side of the town line - that's where they drew the line."

Later the town limits were extended and, ironically enough, Meat Products today is closer to the center of town and the old town limits than Gwaltney is.

According to the history books, the Smithfield ham law, which defined Smithfield hams as being taken from peanut-fed hogs and processed within the corporate limits of the town, was enacted to protect the name Smithfield from being used by shabby packers who produced low-quality meats and capitalized on the name.

According to Spring, Gwaltney was the mover and shaker behind the law, and it was meant to keep Sprigg out.

"He was worried I'd start offering higher prices for local hogs," Sprigg said.

The "foreigner" took a stand and fought the law, he said, and it wasn't until the people of Smithfield realized he was going to take it all the way to the Supreme Court that the town limits were extended to include his plant.

A 1966 revision of the Smithfield ham law dropped the requirement that the hogs be peanut-fed. Local farmers and the industry say that it's no longer practical to fence large peanut fields to allow hogs to graze. Other farmers say that with today's sophisticated machinery, very few peanuts escape harvest, so it's no longer all that beneficial to allow the animals into the fields.

The USDA extension officer in Smithfield said that hogs aren't allowed to run in modern-day peanut fields because pesticides used on the crops aren't fit for pig consumption.

No one is really sure how the Smithfield method of curing evolved, but chances are pretty good that the Indians started dry-cure and long aging as a way of preserving venison for their nomadic journeys.

Early settlers learned the methods from the natives, and Mallory Todd was enterprising enough to make a business of it.

The use of sodium nitrates, or saltpeter, in the curing process, a chemical that is still used today, dates back to the early Chinese and maybe even long before them. We don't know if the Indians used saltpeter in their cures, but ever since Smithfield hams have been cured, sodium nitrates have been an important ingredient.

The reason why we are sure that the first dry-cured hams were developed by the white settlers is that hogs are not native to America. They were brought over with the first settlers.

The little beasties loved the new land. The pigs thrived and multiplied. A good sow will bear an average of eleven piglets and often she will pop out fourteen or fifteen.

As these animals grew and multiplied, the settlers found to their dismay that the pigs became far too numerous to keep in home kitchens, as was the custom because of lack of housing, so they encouraged the animals to find shelter elsewhere.

Pretty soon there were more hogs around than anyone knew what to do with, so John Smith, his cousin Arthur (who founded Smithfield) and their various friends and Indian cohorts rounded them all up and herded them out to Hog Island, which is a little peninsula in the James River that now serves as a wildlife preserve - sans hogs.

This was the heyday of the razor-back hog, from which the original Smithfield hams were made. Apparently in the wilds the species has a tendency to grow small and tough as opposed to their domestic cousins - the large and fat. Annually, the hogs were rounded up very ceremoniously - a la Chincoteague - and herded into peanut fields. Here they developed the oil sheen to their meat, and the flavor took on a nuttiness that became highly sought-after. This, coupled with the natural leanness of the animal and the hard texture of its meat, were what made Smithfield hams famous.

Today, meat packers rely largely on the curing and aging process to retain that greatness, and they go so far as to say today's hams are better than those of 100 years ago because the meat isn't as tough. There's no one left who's ever tasted a "real" Smithfield ham, so it's a little hard to pass judgment, but you can be sure today's hams are different.

In the factory lines, the hogs are stunned with gas or electricity, stuck, hung by their hind legs, washed, singed, slit, gutted, eyes gouged, scrubbed inside and out with high-speed revolving brushes and then dispensed to whatever food function they will each fulfill - be it hot dogs, baloney or Smithfield hams.

To qualify as a Smithfield ham, the animal has to be within a certain weight limit, be free of internal bruises, have an oily quality and contain not more than one inch of fatback.

The packers at Gwaltney and Smithfield Packing Co. Will tell you that only about one-sixth of the 4000 or so hogs slaughtered daily at each plant qualify as potentials for Smithfield hams. Once the carcass has gone through checking and cleaning, it goes to a computer. The computer absorbs all the necessary statistics about each carcass, then draws lines on it. The workers then cut along the lines.

Descriptions of all the rest of the automation would be a bit much at this point - you get the idea. It's all very smooth, very clean, very wellrun, very modern.

It's unfortunate that even the down-home, backwoods farmers who used to cure and peddle their own hams don't do that anymore. The extension agent said that there are those who will put up hams for the winter, but no stranger wandering into town for the first time will ever get to taste them - these are hung for family and friends.

Parke Griffin heaves a long sigh when he thinks about that.

"I want to tell you," he says, "I got into a lot of trouble. Somebody came in here and wrote an article, and the feds, they were on top of me in a minute. Almost drove me out of business."

Parke Griffin is a farmer who lives outside of Smithfield. He cures his own hams. His daddy did the same, and his daddy before him. So did his father-in-law, and maybe even his father-in-law's father.

Griffin doesn't really remember. He's pushing 60, and it won't be long yet before he quits. But right now, he's curing his own hams and selling them to the public. It's generally recognized in Smithfield that Parke Griffin's hams are about the best around - if you can get one. He only puts up 1500 a year.

But even Parke Griffin has made concessions to modern technology. He doesn't slaughter his own hogs. He sells them and buys green hams from the packers. It wouldn't be profitable to do it any other way.

He buys the hams by the hundredweight. He cures three lots annually - but that's where he sticks to the old way. Parke Griffin ages his hams a year.

There's no telling just why Parke Griffin's hams are considered so good. "The feds" are paying attention to him these days and there are regulations he must follow. He cures the pieces in an old milkhouse. He smokes them in a good, solid barn. He is helped by his son and a neighbor in the annual enterprise. There are no rotating brushes, computerized butchers, steel and rubber conveyer belts, temperature-controlled rooms.

Maybe it's the touch of human hands - without the sanitized rubber gloves. Maybe it's the applewood he throws on the smoldering smoking fire every time a neighbor cuts down a tree. Maybe it's because Griffin's farm sits atop a knoll, over-looking a lake dotted with Canadian geese even on a cold witner's day, and the breezes waft gently around the barn-top vents. Maybe it's those glorious black and white sows that grunt feverishly when they are robbed of their babies.

It's just the old fashioned way, and probably, as near as you can get it, the old-fashioned taste.