Virginia Is For (Ham) Lovers: How Ham Became A Symbol Of The Commonwealth Virginia ham is smoked, salty and best with biscuits. Its origins date back to colonial America.
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Virginia Is For (Ham) Lovers: How Ham Became A Symbol Of The Commonwealth

Virginia Is For (Ham) Lovers: How Ham Became A Symbol Of The Commonwealth

Move over, New York pizza and Idaho potatoes. It's ham time. Ruth Tam/WAMU hide caption

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Ruth Tam/WAMU

You might've seen it on a holiday dinner table, or served in slices next to biscuits at a family restaurant.

Yes, this is a story all about Virginia ham, arguably the Commonwealth's most iconic food. Maryland has its crabs, D.C. has its half-smokes and us Virginians have our ham.

Why is your local public radio station serving you up a piping hot treatise on pig meat? Well, a listener recently submitted a question about the region's signature foods to WAMU's What's With Washington project, and he mentioned Virginia ham. We realized we didn't know much about the dish's origins or its current status as a symbol of Virginia.

Subscribe to Season 2 of the What's With Washington podcast, now available to listen on your favorite podcatcher.

Our ensuing hamsploration took us to George Washington's smokehouse, a grocery store deli counter, a specialty ham shop shaped like a tiny red barn, and a radio studio that will probably smell like lunch meat until the end of time.

First Off, What Is Virginia Ham?

A traditional Virginia diner breakfast: eggs, biscuits, grits and Virginia ham. Jimmy Emerson/Flickr hide caption

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Jimmy Emerson/Flickr

Virginia ham is a special variety of the country ham that's popular across the American South. Here's the traditional recipe, which dates back to the colonial era:

  • Raise a pig in Virginia and feed it peaches, peanuts — yes, Virginia peanuts — and anything else the pig can find on the forest floor.
  • Butcher said pig.
  • Cure the meat with salt and saltpeter (potassium nitrate) for flavor and preservation and let it sit for anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.
  • Rub in a spice mix of your own devising — black pepper and brown sugar are usually good ideas.
  • Hang the meat from a hook in a smokehouse and smoke it over a low-burning hickory or oak fire for a couple of days.
  • If you have a pest problem, rub in some more black pepper to keep away insects. Let it sit around for six months, give or take. The meat will grow a layer of mold — that is perfectly normal.
  • Voila! You have yourself a Virginia ham!
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To prepare your ham, slice off the mold, boil the heck out of it to remove some of the salt, rub it with some brown sugar and then pop it in the oven. Cut it into ultra-thin slices and serve with sweet potato biscuits.

Sounds Like A Lot Of Work. How Did It Become So Iconic?

Two women prepare a Virginia ham on Massachusetts Avenue in 1937. The Library of Congress identifies the women only as "Mrs. Mark Bristol," right, and "Mamie," left. Harris & Ewing/Library of Congress hide caption

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Harris & Ewing/Library of Congress

Ham was a staple of colonial cuisine. The English settlers who established Jamestowne in the early 1600s brought razorback pigs with them and sold the meat to other parts of colonial America (cured meat lasts long and travels well). The ham industry set down its deepest Virginia roots in Isle of Wight County, and in the town of Smithfield in particular.

The United States' first First Family were big ham fans. Enslaved people at Mount Vernon raised, butchered and smoked a couple hundred hogs per year so the Washingtons could always have a ham at the ready for their many guests. George and Martha would also send barrels of ham up to the White House and to their friends across the ocean, like Marquis de Lafayette and his wife.

Virginia hams remained a profitable export to the Old World even after American independence. Queen Victoria, it is said, had a standing order for six Virginia hams a week. She even preferred them to the English variety.

Virginia ham was so popular that someone even wrote a song about it in the mid-to-late 19th century. It was called "Who stole the ham?"

Smithfield Ham, That Sounds Familiar...

Much pig, very porky. The Smithfield Times Inc./Wikimedia Commons hide caption

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The Smithfield Times Inc./Wikimedia Commons

The most iconic Virginia ham comes from Smithfield, also known as the "ham capital of the world" and, more succinctly, "Hamtown."

In the last decade of the 1800s, packers in the Smithfield area were producing about 20,000 hams per year. A grocer touted his access to Smithfield hams in an ad he ran in the Norfolk Virginian in 1897 ("Get the best ... cash talks"). Twenty-two years later, an ad in The New York Times called Smithfield hams "world-famous."

Smithfield ham became so well-known that imitators began stealing the name for their own products, leading the Virginia General Assembly to pass a law in 1926 restricting the use of the name to products produced in Smithfield (kind of like the Commonwealth's meaty version of champagne).

The industry centralized even further in 1936 when a father-son team founded Smithfield Packing Company and turned it into the largest pig producer in the country. "Smithfield belched porky odors day and night," Walter Nicholls wrote in a story about his quest for the perfect Virginia ham for a 1991 edition of the Washington Post Magazine. "I still hear the squeals of hundreds of pigs."

Enough With the History. What's The Virginia Ham Industry Like Today?

Dana Bright, the owner of the Old Virginia Ham Shop in Norfolk, Va., slices a few samples of country ham for a hungry reporter. Mikaela Lefrak/WAMU hide caption

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Mikaela Lefrak/WAMU

To answer this question, I took a road trip to the Old Virginia Ham Shop in Norfolk, which has been operating out of the same little red barn since 1963.

Owner Dana Bright told me that business was strong, particularly around the holidays. She earns about 75% to 80% of her revenue between October and December, with another boost around Easter.

However, she does have a few concerns, particularly on the supply side. Smithfield Foods was acquired by a Chinese company in 2013, and Bright worries that the new owners won't uphold Virginia's traditions. Another supplier, Johnston County Hams, shut down last year after it had to recall near 90,000 pounds of deli-loaf ham.

Plus, strict food safety regulations can be hard for small businesses like hers. Virginia ham typically grows a thick layer of mold that you cut off before preparing it, but some customers don't know that. She's received dozens of angry phone calls from people who think they just paid $129.00 for a hunk of moldy, inedible meat.

But all in all, Bright says her loyal customer base is more than enough to keep business afloat. "I think the most amazing thing about the tradition of Virginia ham is the customers that come with it," she said.

Now I'm Hungry. How Does This True Virginia Ham Taste?

Intrepid WAMU producer Patrick Fort tries out some ham samples — hamples, if you will. Ruth Tam/WAMU hide caption

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Ruth Tam/WAMU

As a native Virginian, I'm contractually bound by the Commonwealth to say yes, Virginia ham is delicious.

The hosts of WAMU's local food podcast Dish City, Ruth Tam and Patrick Fort, offered a more impartial verdict.

"There's no denying that it's a salty slice," Tam said during a taste test of grocery store-branded Virginia ham ("NOT THE REAL THING," Bright warned us) and slices from the Old Virginia Ham Shop. An avowed lunch meat lover, she still thought Bright's product was "way better" than the deli meat.

"It's delicious," Fort agreed. "It's got prosciutto-y vibes."

But by the end of the taste test, both were reaching for more sweet potato biscuits to balance out the trademark saltiness of authentic Virginia ham.

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