The spread laid out at the 2012 Atlanta Food & Wine Festival was likely the greatest assemblage of Southern ham ever in one place. Allan Benton, the humble Tennessee guru of pork and smoke, said so himself. Twelve whole legs of ham from 11 Southern states graced the table. Chefs hovered over the meat, diligently hand-slicing morsels of manna from hog heaven. Chef Linton Hopkins raised a cup of bourbon and officially kicked off the public coming-out party for the Fellowship of Country Ham Slicers.
The Fellowship may be purely of the South, but it owes its inspiration to a different southern culture entirely: that of the Iberian Peninsula in southwestern Europe. There, in Spain, master slicers devote their lives to the art of cutting ham. This dedication to technique comes out of respect for the ham, and the desire to produce the type of paper-thin curls of cured pork that will maximize each and every bite. Spain's jamón Ibérico de bellota is a national treasure that can command prices upward of $100 per pound thanks to a fanatical and tradition-bound approach to raising the right pigs (the Ibérico breed) in the right environment (set wild, among the acorn-laden oak forests of western Spain).
The craft of Spanish ham slicing has its own professional associations, its own contests of skill, its own strange devices and ornate implements. It inspires seminars, gatherings, and books. In fact, it was Pilar Esteban Ordorica's Mastering the Fine Art of Slicing Spanish Ham that inspired Hopkins, chef and co-owner of Restaurant Eugene and president of the Board of the Southern Foodways Alliance, to start the Fellowship back in December. The book's beauty and attention to detail moved Hopkins and gave him a vision of what the country hams of the American South could be in the right hands. While the tactics of the Fellowship are yet to be fully fleshed out (its Facebook page is the main hub for anyone interested in joining the cause), the Fellowship's mission is clear enough: "to celebrate the craft of slicing country ham by hand and serving it in its unadorned uncooked glory."
To most Southerners, the words "country ham" bring to mind thick, round cuts of salty and chewy pork, often sold pre-sliced at the grocery store and usually cooked up in a skillet. The notion of thinly sliced-to-order, uncooked country ham is simply ... foreign. The Fellowship aims to change that. Among a relatively small circle of chefs, heritage pig breeders, and charcuterie fans, the hams of the American South are now being spoken of in the same hushed tones as Spain's legendary hams. The notion of subjecting a Spanish jamon Ibérico to anything other than slicing by hand would be blasphemous, and Hopkins is aiming for the ascendance of Southern ham to that same pantheon of pork.
The climb will not be easy. Even Benton, a true evangelist of Southern pork, admits that country ham is, at its heart, "the cheap food that hillbillies used to survive on." And, as good as his product is, he swears his grandparents' hams were even better. Why? "Because they were poor!" says Benton. His grandparents didn't have the money to buy feed for the hogs, so they let them forage in the wild for acorns, just as the Spaniards do for their finest hams.
EVERY FEBRUARY, among the pine forests and open fields of South Georgia, crowds gather for the annual Lowndes County Ham and Egg Show. Begun in 1950 by the Black Farm Bureau as a way to encourage good farming practices, the Ham and Egg Show is a rare, tangible link to the state's rural agricultural past.
The Ham and Egg Show is a battle royale of, well, ham and eggs. The competitors range from 4-H youngsters to old-timers. It's a place where time-honored traditions still hold some sway, where elders who know their stuff can impart some wisdom to a younger generation. The judge is Glenwood Hill, retired extension program leader of agriculture and natural resources at Georgia's Fort Valley State University. His white lab coat, grizzled gray beard, and stoic countenance project an air of supreme expertise. He gladly helps novices through their ham curing with tips on distinguishing a good cure from a doomed one, how a proper ham should smell at different stages of aging, and the way the meat should feel.
The Ham and Egg Show is the only event of its kind left in Georgia, and demonstrates a small resurgence in home and small farm curing taking place amid the modern proliferation of big-box grocers and fast-food chains. "This was a way of life several years ago and, of course, we go through a cycle. You're beginning to see more and more people that want to produce their food at home again," Hill told the Valdosta Daily Times.
THE SCENE AT THIS YEAR'S Atlanta Food & Wine Festival in Midtown, packed with industry heavy-hitters, distinguished chefs, and eager foodies, was a far cry from the Ham and Egg Show's down-home atmosphere. But it was an event well-suited to the remarkable tasting put forth by the Fellowship of Country Ham Slicers. The hams on display were largely labors of love from noted chefs and artisans from around the South such as Tennessee's Benton, chef Sean Brock of Charleston's Husk and McCrady's, and Nancy Newsom Mahaffey of Colonel Bill Newsom's Aged Kentucky Country Ham (a 95-year-old treasure of Southern craftsmanship). Georgia's entry, on the other hand, was a Ham and Egg Show blue ribbon winner, cured by a Valdosta 14-year-old.
The range of flavor profiles at the tasting was astonishing: Long-aged Ossabaw ham from West Virginia's Black Oak Holler Farm, whose pigs roam free, brought to mind wild boar jerky, with an incredibly rich, buttery flavor layered over dry, salty gaminess. At the other end of the spectrum, Alabama's Smith Farms' pasture-raised pigs produced a mild, soft, and moist ham. Edwards Hams of Virginia supplied a Spanish Serrano-style ham from a Berkshire hog. It was chewy and meaty and had a smoky, bacon-like aroma. From North Carolina, chef Andrea Reusing used a whey-fed Tamworth hog to produce a firm, slightly dry and very rich ham with a stinky cheese whomp.
The award for most unusual amalgam of heritage breeds went to Brock and his "Berkwattabaw" (a cross of Berkshire boar with Red Wattle Ossabaw sow), sourced from renowned pig breeder Bev Eggleston. Aged 26 months, this wrinkly old beauty packed a super-chewy forgotten funk. The tasting culminated in New Orleans chef Alon Shaya's entry. The Israeli-born Jew has become an improbable preacher of pork. Benton judged Shaya's 36-month-old (the average age of country hams is four to six months) prosciutto-style Berkshire ham to be a "12 on a 10 point scale, the best I've ever had." Indeed, it was nutty and a touch sweet, with a bit of bite to it from the long aging and an expanse of melt-in-your-mouth fat.
When Hopkins talks about the Fellowship, you get a sense that it's not just about Southern ham for him, but also about Southern hospitality. Slicing and serving a fine uncooked Southern ham by hand is a way to share its inherent beauty, to take joy in the marriage of pork and salt and time. "Southern cuisine is not a museum piece, it's always changing, always being reinterpreted and celebrated," says Hopkins.