Yes, men and women may come and go, revolutions wrack monarchies, wives and husbands deceive us, taxes mount, the mechanized age buffet our ringing heads, but one of these hams will renew faith in the universe. To our wry and lawless mind such a ham is, during these chancey days, one of our few remaining importances.
– Quotation from an 18th-century English cookbook
Do hams that inspire such rapturous poesy still exist? Or have they all been Kroger-ized into uniformly pinkish, bland cubes that sit for all eternity behind a glass counter next to the day’s special tuna roll? Or was this just some gastronomic grandstanding by a giddy English gent with a lot of time on his hands?
I am here to tell you, my friends, that yes, such hams do exist today, in a sleepy little town in southwestern Kentucky.
At the 22nd Annual Trigg County Country Ham Festival in Cadiz, Kentucky, local hams with a national reputation take center stage the second weekend of every October. It is a gathering of kindred souls (hamophiles?) connected by their love of, and appreciation for, the almost mystical art and craft of producing superior smoked country ham.
For those wondering what all the fuss is about, those of the “ham is a ham is a ham” school of thought, or those who looked at me like I was from the moon for even going to such a festival, I pity thee. In an age of chicken in buckets and dispiriting off-ramp cuisine, the survival of such an anachronistic, idiosyncratic and sublime culinary tradition needs to be applauded, embraced and, most importantly, consumed with mouth-watering delight.
Cadiz (pronounced KAY-deez, so far as I could tell) is situated among the rolling hills of Trigg County, near the TVA-created recreation spot Land Between the Lakes. It’s about two hours northwest of Nashville and eight hours south of Chicago, from where my friend and I started. The surrounding forested countryside (lots of hickory for all that smoke), dotted with small tobacco farms, was a welcome relief from the Dostoyevskian gray that begins its stranglehold on Chicago this time of year. Cadiz itself is one main street, replete with the standard issue row of two-story brick storefronts, a courthouse, and a statue to the Civil War fallen.
At festival time, some 75,000 people (over 20 times the town’s population) crowd onto this street and the nearby park. With attractions like a vintage car show, a quilting contest, a pig kissing contest, Miss Trigg County Pageant, and canning contests, there is the unmistakable air of county fairs that happen all over the country. There are even a few impossibly hard carnival games (where you can spend $47 to win a $4 mirror with your favorite WWF star on it), some rides, and a petting zoo (with a baby pig that looked understandably nervous).
The musical offerings were rather typically uninspired festival fodder. There was some dreadful middle of the road country, a forgettable blues-based guitar rock bar band (forgettable only if you could get far enough away from the overly muscular PA), and a strange gospel singer who sang along to taped synth music. Sadly, the only bluegrass available in this, the Bluegrass State, was at a stage at the back corner of the park, where the only people catching their act were a few bluegrass diehards, my friend and I, and lots of teens who were trying to sneak smokes away from the prying eyes of their parents.
The dazzling array of food booths that accompany small-town festivals were a step above the usual fare. As one would expect, corn dogs, gyros, BBQ chicken, lemonade and cotton candy were all available. There was even a Chicago-style Polish sah-sage stand. But I didn’t drive 500 miles to get something that’s available every 12 feet back home. Instead, stops were made at the burgoo booth (burgoo is its own indescribably good Kentucky phenomenon — sort of a stew, but I’d be hard pressed to give you any more ingredient details), the pulled pork sandwich booth of a local pit restaurant, a BBQ mutton booth, and the fried pie stand (don’t laugh or cringe unless you’ve had one). Fabulous stuff.
All of this — the music, the rides, the food stands, the vintage cars — was mere sideshow, however, to the main reason for the gathering: The Ham. For whatever reason, Trigg County has maintained, some would say perfected, the dying art of smoking hams.
The process involves time, individual care, a strong will, and a genuine passion — all sadly lacking in most aspects of today’s food universe. Oh, yeah, it takes lots of salt and smoke, too. A thumbnail sketch of how to smoke a ham goes something like this: Cure the sucker with salt (maybe with some sugar) for 2 or 3 weeks, then hang it in your barn and smoke it with hickory smoke for another 2 or 3 weeks, and then let it age.
Sure, it sounds easy enough, but each step demands diligent care. And, of course, each ham smoker swears by untold variations on the aforementioned process. There are hints and rumors that sassafras, tobacco, cinnamon and other elements are brought into the fray at different times, for different reasons, for different lengths. (This folksy and whimsical approach to food production makes it illegal to ship the hams outside the county, so if you want one, you gotta go get it. Or, if you don’t want a whole ham, you can visit the Hamtown restaurant for a sampling.)
The whole thing takes on a cabalistic air; you get the sense that they’re not telling you everything, and that forces beyond the comprehension of a mere ham-lover are being exercised. No matter, though: I’m not entirely sure how my television works, but I can watch it just fine.
The resulting country hams have about as much to do with the ham you’re used to at the corner restaurant as a McRib sandwich has to do with real barbecue. These are nasty, gnarly, brownish-black-green things to look at. They smell like a barn, and the rind is tough as leather. They also have some heft: An average ham weighs in around 15-25 pounds.
Once you get past the rind (use your sharpest knife; my friend used a hacksaw), you are in pigmeat heaven. The color of the ham runs the gamut from hearty pinks to deep maroons to dirt browns. And the taste…the first thing that strikes you is how salty it is. It is fantastically salty, unfathomably salty, otherworldly salty. Then the full flavor hits (and every slice is different). It is at once gamey, smoky, and succulent.
In some bites you can, swear to god, taste the barn; in others, the tobacco, or maybe a hint of sassafras. Other bites reveal flavors that could come from the farmer’s boot or from a mysterious herb. Who knows? Who cares? The flavors are so dense and complex, your brain can’t process it fast enough; you are forced to savor it slowly or run the risk of missing the whole experience. My New York-bred roommate likens it to prosciutto, but I think that’s giving it short shrift. This is truly Ham Heaven. The Ham on the Mount. The Hammy Grail.
The cornerstone event of the festival is the Ham Judging on Saturday morning. On a series of tables laid out in the shadow of the courthouse, Trigg County’s best and brightest ham smokers vie for the top prize. The demeanor with which the judges pored over all these hams was grave.
There is, mind you, no great monetary reward or benefit from winning, just local bragging rights in ham smoking circles. Glancing at the list of past winners, several names cropped up over and over; these past masters are minor celebrities here. Radio interviews were broadcast over loudspeakers at the festival, and people were stopping by the radio booth all day, hoping to get a smidgen of insight into this exquisite craft.
The other big event was to partake in the world’s largest ham biscuit. It was over 10 feet in diameter, weighed over 700 pounds, and was delicious (don’t worry, I had help with it).
The weekend was capped off by a parade down Main Street. All the vintage cars were there, the police and fire trucks, the local dignitaries, Miss Trigg County, and lots of people dressed up like pigs. Indeed, it is an occasion far worthier of celebration than, say, Columbus Day.
So what do I do with a 20-pound ham hanging in my kitchen? So far, it’s been sliced thin and fried up for breakfast; soaked with baked beans; simmered with jambalaya, split pea soup, and red beans; boiled and served with biscuits; a slice or two used for a ham sandwich; thrown in with macaroni and cheese; and eaten plain late at night after a long night of bar-crawling.
Whatever it touches, the Trigg County country ham adds the unmistakable flavor of age-old craftsmanship. On its own, it is as elegant, or as simple, as you want it to be. Either way, I can guarantee you’ve never had anything like it. I just hope the one I’ve got lasts me until next October.