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Country ham a true jewel of the South

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By Greg Summers

Some things don’t need fixing and can’t be improved on.

Take country ham, for instance.

I’ll wager your mouth is watering right now. 

To me, country ham is the ultimate ingredient of Southern cuisine. Molasses finishes a close second.

Forget the macaroni and cheese, peanut butter and jelly, meatloaf and mashed ’taters. I’ll take country ham every time.  

Steeped (and sometimes smoked) in tradition, country ham is the ultimate comfort food. As far as I’m concerned, it always has been that way and always will be.

Hey, we can give the credit to our ancestors; colonists are the ones who brought the technique for preserving pork by salting it down, or curing it.

For the most part, they had little choice. At the time, it was the only way to keep freshly butchered meat from spoiling.

In the South, it was more or less perfect timing, too.

Meat was butchered after the temperature dropped to less than 33 degrees.

That changing of the seasons assured hogs had fully matured and most of them were at an optimal weight, which meant there was more ham to go around. Country ham is why it’s important to stay in the good graces of our neighbors.

The country ham business wasn’t federally regulated until the mid 1950s. 

If you wanted country ham, you didn’t go to town; you went to the farm, said David Ross, author of “Country Ham: Jewel of the South.” 

According to Ross, most was salt-cured in small batches by local farmers. If there was an extra ham or two, farmers sold it off the back of pickups or to store owners, once it was cured.      

“A little bit of mold on a country ham is a mark of distinction in the ham world,” Ross writes. 

I couldn’t agree more.

Now it’s a given that a country ham cured by a dry salt method will always be salty to some degree. 

However, country ham can be soaked and cooked in 7-UP, apple juice or cola to counter the salt.  

The sweetness of those things will counter the salt, but won’t completely remove it.

Not me. I prefer the traditional way, which is frying it and then combining the pan drippings (pot liquor) and coffee to make red-eye gravy. This cooking method really gives our Carolinas backcountry heritage its due. 

Technically, if folklore is the least bit true, we can claim red-eye gravy as a Lancaster invention.

According to www.southernbyways.com, red-eye gravy got its name from Lancaster’s own Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States.

According to legend, Jackson (who was a military general at the time), called his cook over to tell him what to prepare. It seems that the cook had been drinking corn whiskey the night before and his eyes were as red as fire.

Jackson told the cook to “bring me some country ham with gravy as red as your eyes.”

Some of Jackson’s men, who were nearby, heard the general’s remark and from then on, called ham gravy “red-eye gravy.” 

That’s good enough for me.

So are Emeril Lagasse’s Stewed Black-eyed Peas with Country Ham. This recipe is a real winner with an aroma that draws everyone to the kitchen. The mixture of garlic, bay leaves and thyme produces a unique flavor that leaves you wanting to take another bite.  

 

– Greg Summers is features editor for The Lancaster News

 

Black-eyed Peas with Country Ham

Ingredients

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup chopped onion

2 tablespoons minced garlic

2 bay leaves

1 sprig fresh thyme

5 to 6 ounces (about 1 cup) roughly chopped country ham pieces

1 pound dried black-eyed peas, soaked in cold water overnight and rinsed well

1 quart low-sodium chicken stock

1 cup cold water

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

 

Directions

– In a medium stock pot, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the onions and cook for 2 minutes. Stir in the garlic, bay leaves, thyme and country ham. Add the black-eyed peas, chicken stock and 1 cup cold water. Bring the liquid up to a boil, partially cover and reduce to a simmer. Simmer the peas for about 25 minutes, uncover and cook an additional 20 to 25 minutes, or until the peas are tender. Season the peas with salt and pepper as needed.

 

– Recipe from Emeril Lagasse (Food Channel)