I come from a ham town and everyone knows it. The mention of Smithfield conjures pork. But to most, it is factory farms, picket lines and Paula Deen, things associated with Virginia's monolithic Smithfield Foods, one of the world's largest (and most destructive) producers of pork.
"We get a lot of complaints about Smithfield hams from the grocery," says Rufus Brown, curemaster at Johnston County Hams in Smithfield, N.C. "A lot of emails."
Brown's ham—the other Smithfield ham—is produced in a squat warehouse on the side of Highway 301 near downtown, where it's currently ham season. The company sells 30 to 40 percent of the meats it ages during the final two months of the year.
There are cooked and uncooked salt-cured hams, honey hams, aged country hams sliced thin like prosciutto, bacon, hocks and hams from wooly-coated Mangalitsas—a rare Hungarian hog brought stateside by Heath Putnam Farms (formerly Wooly Pigs) that Johnston County ages into rich, buttery pork that is on par with some of Spain and Italy's world-renowned hams. The meat sells for $275 per ham, or $45 a pound.
"I didn't think we could make a ham to compete with those," Brown says. But last year, the pungent, cured Mangalitsa was a 2011 silver finalist for a SOFI (specialty outstanding food innovation), an annual award bestowed by the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade.
At the beginning there were no hams at all. Johnston County Hams began as Johnston County Frozen Foods in 1946, selling lockers in large coolers to home cooks and farmers who needed a place to store food, before the convenience of home freezers became readily available. Hams were introduced as a thank-you.
"They started curing hams as a service to the people who were bringing their pork in here," says Brown. But as the 1950s ushered refrigerators and freezers into most household kitchens, hams became the whole deal.
In 1967, Brown's father, Jesse, was hired as the company's first curemaster and brought with him knowledge of an aging process he had learned from his uncles in Tazwell, Va. He called himself the "Ham King" and suspended pork from tobacco sticks to dry in various rooms.
The downtown warehouse was laid out according to the seasons. Kept a bit above freezing, a winter room held hams that had been salt-rubbed twice by hand for 42 days. Around the corner was spring, an area where washed meats cured for two weeks at 55 degrees. Finally there was summer, an 80-degree aging room where meats cured for 30 days to a year or more.
The tobacco sticks have been replaced with USDA-approved metal rods, and most of the wooden beams in the warehouse have been swapped for materials that are easier to wash. But a lot has stayed the same. Brown, who worked under his father's watch until his death in 1996, uses the same traditional curing techniques. "We're duplicating the whole thing the farmers used to do," he says, referencing the way in which hams were once commonly hung in barns to weather with the changing seasons.
Johnston County's best hams—Mangalitsas and those designated as part of Brown's curemaster reserve series—still hang high by the dozens in a wooden loft, accessible from a narrow metal staircase that spirals to a short catwalk. The area, which is hard to clean by industrial standards, is permissible by the USDA through a grandfather clause.
Brown believes the wood, which packs decades' worth of salt and pork aromas, imparts better flavor to the hams that age in it. "If you took one of these pieces of wood out and set it in the sun, it would never stop leaking grease," he says.
It's an environment and a process that creates delicate meats lauded by the likes of The New York Times and Food & Wine. Brown's Mangalitsas, which he began curing two years ago, have gone to some of the country's top chefs, including Thomas Keller of California's French Laundry fame and John Besh of Louisiana, who has been quoted as claiming Johnston County hams are among the best in America.
In the Triangle, Raleigh's NOFO at the Pig serves the pork with peas, scallions and tomatoes over penne in vodka sauce. Johnston County hams have also made appearances at Magnolia Grill and Watts Grocery.
One of the area's newest fans is Patrick Coleff, who owns Reliable Cheese Co. in Durham. When he opened earlier this year, Coleff stocked the company's prosciutto-like meat, thinking he'd swap it soon for another well-known artisan label like Benton's of Tennessee.
"When I first got it in, I did it out of convenience," Coleff says of the local pork. "But then I found that I liked the Johnston County so much more that I kept it. It's an easy choice for me to keep selling that one."
"People are discovering that [aged country ham] is a better buy than prosciutto," Brown says.
Reliable Cheese cuts Johnston County prosciutto-style ham for $9 a pound and dresses salty slices with fig jam and blue cheese in a crisp, pressed sandwich. As Coleff shows, country-style ham deserves space beyond the buttery folds of a biscuit or a silver holiday platter—spots where it's well known.
It is hard to beat the pork in a salty breakfast sandwich, however. And it's difficult to imagine a family feast without a ham. Among my relatives, the absence of one would be cause for another form of Smithfield picketing.
Johnston County's hams are easy to locate around the Triangle. The Ham Shop—attached to the Johnston County curing facility in Smithfield—sells all of the company's pork, in addition to smoked turkeys and ducks, cheeses, crackers and coffees. In Chapel Hill, A Southern Season stocks Mangalitsa, prosciutto, country ham and hocks, and Brown's curemaster reserve line of products. They also serve country ham in their biscuits, including at biscuit-making workshops.