Insider restaurant writer Steve Coomes publishes book on country ham

The new book.

The new book.

So I published my first book last month.

It’s done. It’s over. That career stepping stone beast is slain, and now it’s time to promote and sell the darn thing.

Any romance drawn from reporting, researching, interviewing and writing the silly thing has long passed and the real work begins. It’s all shilling for shillings from here on out.

Just looking at the bill for the two cases of books I ordered just to have on hand—and which are nearly gone after 10 days—makes me realize this is a business matter, not some literary fantasy acted out on someone else’s dime.

Nope, no advances at my level. As most first-time book authors will tell you, save for the cost of printing by a publisher, it’s all on the author.

So the name of the book is this: “Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt and Smoke.” The title pretty much says it all. The book is about this under-appreciated Southern food classic and the people who make it. Their stories with as little of my retelling as possible, a bit of history and commentary by chefs who use them, and some recipes, too.

I believe I achieved the goal of deepening readers’ understanding of why country ham is so special but largely misunderstood right here in the region where it’s made. Even many who make the darn things simply see it as a country food, not the world-class foods these hams are.

Bob Woods, one ham maker I interviewed, owns The Hamery in Murfreesboro, Tenn., and calls country ham “hillbilly prosciutto,” which is a great description. Prosciutto, like country ham, is a salt-cured hindquarter of a pig. Hillbilly prosciutto includes a bit of sugar in the cure and a kiss of smoke.

That’s it. That’s the difference. Yet for many reasons, some people—especially Southerners—don’t recognize the similarities because they were taught that all pork, even salt-cured pork, should be cooked. To death. Reduced to salty, but edible leather. Which no one ever does to prosciutto or serrano or the legendary jamón Iberico. That ham, when imported here from Spain, costs $100 per pound.

No fool in his right mind would cook that.

And yet over the course of researching this book, I learned that some of our country hams are just as exquisite as the Iberico yet ask one-tenth the price. (BTW, the only place in town I’m aware of that you can get sliced Iberico is The Place Downstairs. I believe one portion is $18, but that’s a bargain.)

Nancy Newsom, ham making legend at Col. Bill Newsom's Aged Kentucky Country Hams in Princeton, Ky.

Nancy Newsom, ham making legend at Col. Bill Newsom’s Aged Kentucky Country Hams in Princeton, Ky.

The Hamery’s “Tennshoetoe” ham is one superb example of a world-class ham. The two-year-old ham at Col. Bill Newsom’s Aged Kentucky Country Hams is another. In fact, ham maker Nancy Newsom, who lives in Princeton, Ky., is the only American ever invited to the World Congress of Hams, an annual European meeting of the world’s greatest ham producers. When she went to Aracena, Spain, in 2009, the group—made up of male, Old World curers from Spain, Italy, Germany and England—was so taken with the Kentuckian’s ham that she not only wound up on national TV there, they asked her to leave behind one of her hams to hang in a museum.

Spaniards get it when it comes to country hams. They understand what a treasure we have right here in this region, a spot that’s hot and humid in the summer and brutally cold in the winter, and perfect for country ham making (as well as bourbon).

And they don’t even have to cost as much as Newsom’s and Woods’ hams (which, on the high end, can be as much as $250.) Scott Hams’ two-year-aged ham was my favorite bargain found during seven months of research. At $72 for a whole ham (for that cost, you cut it yourself, which is no mean feat), the Greenville, Ky.-made ham is amazingly affordable.

Broadbent’s country hams are legendary, capturing fully 25 percent of every Kentucky State Fair grand championship for the past 49 years. The company is owned by Ronnie and Beth Drennan, two of the nicest Western Kentuckians you’ll ever meet. It was their disposition and dedication to the slowly disappearing craft of ham curing that led Smith Broadbent III to sell his business to them more than a decade ago. They’ve since grown it tenfold, and their hams are on several restaurant menus in New York.

Perhaps the most disappointing thing I learned while writing the book is the hams mentioned above (and others you’ll see in the book) are taken for granted by most who live below the Mason-Dixon Line. When I called chefs around the country, big city types from New York, Chicago, San Francisco and the like, they couldn’t believe people here hold country ham in such low regard, as a biscuit filler. Some were astonished we cook it at all. Time and time again chefs told me all they do with country ham is slice it for charcuterie, and often they serve it on tasting platters beside great hams from Spain and Italy.

(And to be fair, many great Southern chefs, typically younger ones, don’t cook country ham.)

Outsiders also laugh at the bargain they’re getting when buying it even for $350 per ham. They know good and well what a treat this is, so they rarely cook it unless it’s diced finely or julienned for garnish or seasoning in a dish. And that’s scrap meat only.

The ever-affable Leslie Scott of Scott Hams in Greenville, Ky.

The ever-affable Leslie Scott of Scott Hams in Greenville, Ky.

Some of Scott Hams’ most loyal customers are Eastern European immigrants who understand aged ham. At Broadbent’s, the Drennans say long-haul truckers who’ve immigrated here will pull off I-69 at Kuttawa, Ky., to get their hams.

They get it.

Yet in the “Country Ham Belt” of Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia, it’s a different story. I asked several ham makers if they ate prosciutto, and many said, “Oh, sure, I love it.” But when asked if they ever ate their own ham uncooked—just like prosciutto—some recoiled at the thought. (Not Newsom, she loves it that way, as does Woods and a few others.)

Weird, huh?

They don’t know what they’re missing, and there’s no convincing them they’re missing anything outside of potential food poisoning—even though they know it’s fully cured and safe to eat after nine months of aging.

Sad, because they, and for the time being, many in the South, won’t know the virtues of Jay Denham’s Mountain Ham, (made under The Cure House name) which is aged in a climate controlled building off Fern Valley Road. At $350 per ham, you don’t cook this stuff. It’s ethereal just sliced.

When sliced expertly by Jay Denham, this is what a Mountain Ham becomes.

When sliced expertly by Jay Denham, this is what a Mountain Ham becomes.

Though technically not country ham (he doesn’t smoke his), Denham’s hams come from hogs raised out in the open in the foothills of the Appalachians in West Virginia. The pigs gorge on mast (fruits or nuts that fall from trees and native grubs and bugs) that biologists say is the richest in the world. With the freedom to roam, the hogs develop natural muscular strength and intramuscular fat that makes for exceptionally flavorful ham.

And it’s aged right here in Louisville.

Another mindblower I found was S. Wallace Edwards’ Surryano ham, made from free-range hogs allowed to gorge on peanuts in their final months before slaughter. (In the olden days, that’s how Virginia peanut farmers gleaned their fields. Today’s modern machinery ensures nothing’s left after harvesting.) The buttery texture of the resulting ham (also about $350 whole, but you can get packages of slices for far less) is like none other.

But even better than the ham I ate was interviewing the people who make it, the caretakers of a craft that yields the slowest of slow foods.

Allan Benton, curer and owner at Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams in Madisonville, Tenn., epitomizes the classic Southern gentleman, an endlessly friendly and hospitable soul who’s busier than a one-armed paper hanger, but always has time to tell the story of his hams.

Ed Rice, Jr., checks the hams curing in his Mt. Juliet, Tenn., smokehouse.

Ed Rice, Jr., checks the hams curing in his Mt. Juliet, Tenn., smokehouse.

Ed Rice, Jr., who, though retired after 40 years of curing hams in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., still loves to hold court in his 140-year-old wood-frame store. The business now is run by his daughter and son-in-law. Not only is his ham sublime, he’s a terrific storyteller. (See the book for several good ones, including a visit from the “Martha Stewart Show.”)

Scott Hams’ Leslie and June Scott, a sweet and simple couple of 75-years each, run not only their ham business, they have 600 acres of farmland dotted with high-end Angus beef cattle. That neither has plans to retire anytime soon made me feel lazy in their presence.

Their stories and many others’ told in my book were rendered in their words, partly because I love Southern dialect, and because I wanted their character to shine, not my interpretation and/or distillation of it.

If you live here, are curious about a slice of Kentucky life outside these asphalt rings, and you appreciate local, not to mention historic, food, then consider buying this book.

(And if you don’t know a thing about country ham but want to taste it au naturale, then go to Garage Bar and have the sliced-to-order country ham platter. It’s outstanding, even for its $21 price. Share it with some friends.)

People have asked me about upcoming book signings. Some will be combined with dinners at restaurants (one is scheduled at Corbett’s on Saturday, July 26, and future dates at Seviche, Marketplace Restaurant, Lilly’s and Azur in Lexington, will follow), and others will happen at bookstores (one is scheduled at Carmichael’s on Sept. 13).

If you don’t want to wait that long and fancy a personalized, signed copy, click here and I’ll ship it to you. Heck, if you’re in Louisville, you might get it hand delivered.

And thanks for tolerating the multiple hyperlinks to the book. Momma deserves a new pair of shoes and Sonny, some fishing time with his father, for all those days spent on the road and in the bunker making this book happen. So if not for your own entertainment, consider buying a copy for added peace in the Coomes household.