“Really? You’re going to do this?” was the reaction of local historian and former Smithfield Foods executive Herb De Groft, 77. “Country meats are what brought this area to the fore in the 1800s. Word was, the Queen of England used to get one Smithfield ham a year.”
The salty, long-cured ham has been an area staple since the English colonists and their hogs arrived at nearby Jamestown in the early 1600s. There is a whole section of Virginia State Code — Title 3.2, Chapter 54, Article 4 — entitled “Smithfield Hams.” Just as the French define Champagne and the European Union protects Greek Feta cheese, Virginia law dictates that genuine Smithfield ham is cured in Smithfield.
“Anybody can make a ham,” said Jennifer England, director of the local museum, where pig fanciers can keep tabs on a ham cured in 1902 via the online “Ham Cam.” “But a Smithfield ham can only come from within the town itself.”
The company has said little about its plans since the Smithfield Times newspaper broke the story about the smokehouse last month. A Smithfield Foods spokeswoman said that the smokehouse had reached the end of its useful life and that the company has plenty of genuine Smithfield hams stockpiled to satisfy immediate demand.
“We’re currently meeting about the future of the smokehouse and I don’t have many details to share at this point. Should know more in the coming weeks,” spokeswoman Diana Souder said via email.
The smokehouse is said to be more than 50 years old, but whether the company will build a new one, seek a change in state law or simply abandon the “genuine Smithfield” moniker is a matter of local speculation.
Smokehouses once sat cheek by jowl, so to speak, in the little town, but local ham producers have been consolidating for years. Names like Gwaltney, Luter and Todd — a roll call that can make an old Virginian’s mouth start to water — were absorbed into the giant Smithfield Foods, which itself was purchased five years ago by the Chinese conglomerate Shuanghui Group, now known as WH Group.
An outsider might think selling out to a foreign company would be the thing that set off local alarm bells. But the headquarters remained in a beautiful riverfront complex, the executives are all American, and Smithfield Foods stepped up its involvement in local charities and community events.
“Hey, selling to a Chinese company was a very smart move,” said De Groft, who retired from Smithfield Foods more than 20 years ago. China, he pointed out, is the world’s biggest market for pork products.
The huge meatpacking plants on the edge of town slaughter more than 10,000 hogs per day. On a hot summer afternoon, the sickly sweet smell of the plants settles on the little downtown, where the most modern houses are Victorian confections and some buildings have been absorbing hog aroma since before the Revolution.
“They say that’s the smell of money,” said Caroline Darden Hurt, 75, a retired history teacher whose family has farmed in the area since the 1600s.
There is plenty of ham still coming from Smithfield Foods, the world’s biggest pork producer. Some of it is even salty — Virginia ham and country ham are generic types produced by many companies. But they are not genuine Smithfield hams.
A Smithfield ham is long-cut, with loin attached. Most country hams are short-cut. Old-timers will tell you the curing process — high in the smokehouse rafters over a long, sweltering summer — creates particular amino acids and salt deposits as the moisture disappears from the meat.
But it’s more than that. It is history and culture in food form. The first English settlers salted hams to preserve them; the Native Americans showed them how to smoke meats. A Smithfield ham is the result of both. Paired with a biscuit, served with Brunswick stew or peanut soup, finished with chocolate chess pie — that’s southside Virginia, the sandy soil, the pine trees, the hot, flat peanut fields.
Hurt, the retired history teacher, remembers people sharing hams on Sundays. “Growing up, you could always tell one farmer’s ham from another’s. There were subtle differences. A ham cured in Suffolk or somewhere else just doesn’t taste the same,” she said.
Originally, a hog destined for a Smithfield ham was turned loose on harvested peanut fields to glean the remainders. The peanut oils infused the meat. As hog farming grew in scale in the mid-20th century, though, the requirement that Smithfield hams be peanut-fed was removed from state law.
Creating a Smithfield ham takes commitment. The cut hams are coated in salt and left to cure for more than a month; hung in a smokehouse and smoked for up to a week, until the color looks right; then left to hang and age for six months or more.
Cooking a Smithfield ham is a ritual of its own, often caught up with Thanksgiving or Christmas memories, the salty meat soaking for a day or more before being washed and cooked and sliced tissue-thin.
“The tourists come in looking for it specifically,” said Leigh Abbott, general manager of the Smithfield Inn, which dates to 1752. “I think the locals get a little tapped out on it. Though bacon unites everybody.”
Across the street from the inn, a genuine Smithfield ham can cost from $150 to $200 at the Taste of Smithfield restaurant and store.
Some old-fashioned producers remain in the surrounding countryside. Edwards hams are well-known in nearby Surry County, though a smokehouse fire caused a shortage a few years ago. Felts hams are big in Southampton County.
Just outside Smithfield, at a crossroads among the cotton fields of Isle of Wight County, Tommy Darden carries on the tradition at his Darden’s Country Store.
“My daddy, he [cured hams] most all his life,” Darden, 71, said. He and his wife keep a smokehouse across the street. They buy fresh-cut hams from Smithfield foods then cure and smoke them by hand.
Though he can’t, by law, call them genuine Smithfield hams, that’s essentially what Darden makes. The short-cut variety that passes for country ham, he said, just can’t compare.
He’s worried about the last smokehouse in town closing.
“We’re really not sure what that’s going to entail, but we think it’s not going to be good,” he said. “It’s something that made them famous, something that put them on the map, something that everybody knows and relates to them with, and it’s not going to be here.”
Darden has 950 hams hanging in his smokehouse. He salted them in February, hung them in mid-March. They dangle from the dark rafters like props in a Renaissance painting, the surfaces rough with salt, the air pungent and rich. They were ready to cut down and cook on the Fourth of July.
With a basket of tomatoes and a basket of ham biscuits on the counter of his shop, Darden said he will never get tired of the salty meat.
“I like to eat a chicken salad sandwich with a slice of ham on it and tomato,” he said. “To me, that’s absolute good.”