Smithfield Enjoys Long Tradition as Favored Holiday Ham

By Patricia B. Mitchell, 1990.

C. H. Bird Advertisement

A ca. 1930 Baltimore newspaper advertisment features a peanut-shaped hog and Smithfield cured meats.

A diet of snakes is said to have been responsible for the deliciousness of colonial Virginia's hams. Free-ranging hogs ate the slinky reptiles, imparting a special flavor to the meat. The adaptable hogs also foraged for acorns, and willingly devoured table scraps

This flexibility of food supply, plus the fact that the animals needed almost no supervision, led to their popularity in the colonies. They also grew fast, and their flesh, even when preserved, had an acceptable flavor.

Pigs were brought here from England and Bermuda soon after the founding of Jamestown, and by 1639 settlers were able to export pork and bacon to New England, and subsequently to British sugar plantations in the West Indies and to England.

In 1688 Yorkshire parson John Clayton wrote to the Royal Society of London that Virginia ham was “as good as any in Westphalia (a German duchy then famous for the finest bacon on Europe).” The secret of this supremacy of flavor was not only due to snakes and acorns, but also the meat-curing process involving salting, smoking, and aging.

The most celebrated aged hams are the Smithfield hams of Virginia.

The soil of this Tidewater area was found early on to be too sandy for growing tobacco, so farmers turned to the production of "salted hog-meat," and by 1783 a booming ham business had developed. By a legislative act, only certain pigs are permitted to carry the Smithfield label. They must be raised in Virginia or North Carolina, and be cured within the city limits of Smithfield, Virginia. These country hams are first dry salt cured, then spiced (traditionally with black pepper), and then smoked for almost a year using oak, hickory, and apple woods.

Smithfield hams are very salty. They must be scrubbed, soaked to remove some of the salt and add moisture, simmered, and then baked. Even then the ham should be cut extremely thinly — an ounce or two being enough for each diner. Most hostesses serve turkey and ham at the same meal because the savory flavor of ham is so pronounced that one would not want a large portion.

A 10-pound ham should yield 64 slices, and 10 slices for each additional pound. The bits and pieces left on the bone can be used in ham biscuits, scrambled eggs, casseroles, etc., so none of the expensive meat is wasted.

For many Southerners country ham is a special holiday treat, and one of the name-brand hams a “splurge.”

The Smithfield ham was so much appreciated by Queen Victoria that she had a standing order for the famous Virginia product. Perhaps she had heard of the colonial tradition that there was "scarcely a Virginia lady" who did not eat some cured ham for breakfast.