A lot of hams produced in Smithfield aren’t “Smithfield” hams: Smithfield-style is not the same thing. They don’t meet the qualifications to call themselves that (or they are making styles of ham that aren’t meant to be Smithfield Hams.) Real ones will say “genuine Smithfield ham.”
“Genuine Smithfield hams are those from the peanut-fed hogs, raised in the peanut-belt of the State of Virginia or the State of North Carolina, and which are cured, treated, smoked, and processed in the town of Smithfield, in the State of Virginia.” (1926 Statute passed by General Assembly of Virginia.) The legislation was changed in 1996, striking peanuts as the only allowable feed, and allowing grains.
That being said, other Virginia hams are considered by even some locals to rival the Smithfield Hams.
Brands of Smithfield Ham include Padow, Luther Smithfield Packing Company, Gwaltney, V.W. Joyner & Co., and Amber Brand.
To make a Smithfield Ham, the ham is cold-smoked over smoke from a fire of oak, hickory and applewood. Then, it is coated in black pepper, and aged for a minimum of 6 months. Some might be aged for up to 2 years.
The ham comes out with a dry, stringy texture and a very salty taste.
Regular and lower-salt (“lower sodium”) ones are now being made, but people used to regular brined ham might find even the lower-salt ones Smithfield Hams too salty.
Smithfield Hams can be bought fully-cooked, vacuum-sealed, but if they do not say they are fully cooked, they must be cooked at home.
Must be cooked before eating, according to United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. “Meat Preparation: Focus on Ham”. September 2003.
Cook as for Country Ham.
To serve, slice very thinly.
The first pigs brought to Virginia, in 1610, were actually wild hogs from Bermuda (left there in 1515 by Spanish sailors.)
Promoters of Smithfield Ham date it’s creation as far back as 1779, when a Captain Mallory Todd of Main Street, Smithfield, began shipping hams to West Indies from Smithfield. It appears, though, that it wasn’t until 1870 that cured, smoked hams were made and called Smithfield Ham (by a P.D. Gwaltney, from Surrey, England.)
The Isle of Wight Museum in Smithfield, Virginia, displays the world’s oldest ham, a Smithfield Ham, made in 1902. The ham is covered in green mould. It was originally owned by a maker of Smithfield Ham’s, P.D. Gwaltney. He insured it with Lloyds of London.
Literature & Lore
“The average citizen is fond of a piece of sweet ham, but it is an absolute waste to set before an uneducated palate a slice of a genuine old Smithfield that has been two years in curing,” said Colonel Thomas Longley of Virginia.
“The fame of the Smithfield ham has been spread to the uppermost parts of the land, and I never yet knew a man who was cognizant of the merits of both that didn’t prefer the product of old Virginia to the choicest that ever came from Westphalia. I can’t describe the process of the former’s treatment in detail, but I know it is enveloped in ashes a good while and subsequently buried in mother earth, where it stays for many moons.
“Some high flying epicures aver that a Smithfield should be liberally drenched with champagne while in process of cooking, but I don’t think wine is at all necessary. My mode is to parboil it till the skin comes off easily, then, put it in the baking pan and baste judiciously with vinegar and sugar. Then it comes out a dish fit for the Olympian gods. Of course all the hams that bear the name do not come from the little town of Smithfield, for that little hamlet couldn’t supply one-hundredth part of the demand.
“A member of the universal Smith family, old Captain Isaac, for whom the town was named, and who was if, I mistake not, a contemporary of General Washington, invented the process of curing that part of the hog in question, and today his imitators are scattered all over Virginia and Maryland.”
— “The Smith Family Ham”. Sandusky Register. Sandusky, Ohio. Monday, 11 March 1895. Page 1.
“Strange to say, the animal which produces the incomparable “Smithfield ham” is the “razor-back” hog, a semi-wild, friendless, not to say odious, variety which is found in the mountains of Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. This variety is described as “long nosed, slab-sided and like a race horse with legs of extraordinary length. It has a bad name among farmers who breed fine stock, but for ham it has no equal.
Much depends on the proper feeding and upon the curing of the hams. For a time in the youth of the “razor-back” he is allowed in the summer to run wild in the woods and gain thus a gamey flavor, when he is turned into the fields from which crops have been gathered, where he begins to fatten. Of this fattening process the report [Ed.: “twelfth and thirteenth” annual reports of the bureau of animal industry of the Department of Agriculture] says:
‘In the fall when the corn crop has been gathered the hogs are turned into the corn fields. In these fields every other row has been planted to black-eyed peas and the hogs are allowed to gather these and the small corn that has been left in the field. When turned into these fields they are very thin. The feed they get there causes them to begin to fatten rapidly. As the potatoes are gathered the hogs are allowed to follow in these fields and get the small potatoes that are left. In the district which produces the most Smithfield hams there are a great many sweet potatoes and peanuts raised and the hogs are allowed free access to these fields as soon as the crops are gathered. The potatoes, and particularly the peanuts, add fat with astonishing rapidity, but the fat is very soft. Peanut fat in particular has a translucent, oily character, which from its tendency to drop when the hams are hung up causes a great shrinkage in the weight.’
After the razor-back has cleaned up the fields the next step is to put him up and give him corn and plenty of clean water. With this diet he fattens quickly to the desired extent. The curing is with Liverpool salt and saltpetre, after which the hams are washed clean and slowly smoked for forty days with green hickory or red oak wood. Many farmers raise the hogs, but few cure them. They are sold to skilled curers, who supply the market with about 300,000 pounds of ham yearly.”
— The Famous Smithfield Hams. In “The Landmark” newspaper. Statesville, North Carolina. Friday, 17 September 1897. Page 4.
“William of Germany was initiated into the mysterious merits of a Smithfield ham several years ago during the ceremonies attending the opening of the great canal at Kiel. Captain Robley Evans, who is sometimes known as “Fighting Bob” because of his picturesque profanity and the peculiar manner in which he shivers his timbers, was present on that occasion as the representative of the United States, and in the course of events invited the Emperor to dine on board the flagship New York. It was purely an American dinner and a Smithfield ham occupied the center of the table, roasted to the proper degree and stuck full of cloves as St. Sebastian was full of arrows.
William the Sudden was helped to ham four or five times and apologized for the compliment by saying that it was the best he ever tasted. ‘Why can we not have such hams in Germany?’ he exclaimed. ‘There would be no trouble about it.’ retorted the diplomatic Evans, “if your majesty would remove the restrictions from American pork.”
The Emperor’s suite turned pale with alarm at this bold thrust of the Yankee sailor, but his majesty smiled and listened to a dissertation on the subject of hams and the peculiarities of the Smithfield brand… Since then William II has had nothing but Smithfield hams upon his table, ordering them through the German embassy at Washington.”
— Good Ham for the Kaiser: A Yankee Product That Pleased the Imperial Palate. From Chicago Record-Herald. In Davenport, Iowa: Davenport Daily Republican. 22 August 1901. Page 6.
“There’s a great little book coming from the presses aimed to carry you back to “Ole Virginy.” It’s a book for the chefs, for anyone cooking for crowds. Its subject is ham. Not any old ham but the deviled Smithfield variety, the Amber brand. Forty-two practical recipes are given in quantity amounts, using this spicy meat delicacy. Here are recipes useful for home cooks when the crowd gathers for buffet suppers, teas or cocktail parties. Recipes are included for canapes, salads, sandwiches and hot dishes innumerable. Ham goes with baked lima beans, with corn in a pone pie. It teams with spaghetti, with rice, and with eggs. The ham is used as a stuffing for green peppers and tomatoes. It gives a savory meat flavor to a Spanish rice dish. The book is yours for the asking. Send your request to Smithfield Ham & Products Company, Smithfield, Virginia. Yes sir, we mean yes ma’am, it’s well worth the trouble.” — Paddleford, Clementine (1898 – 1967). Food Flashes Column. Gourmet Magazine. November 1945.