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Eatymology: Country Ham

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Eatymology: Country Ham
Photos by Angie Mosier

Country ham

[‘kən-tr’ham]

n: a cured pork product distinguished by its salty flavor

Country Ham Breakfast Strata

Hog, salt, and smoke. The makings of country ham may be simple, but together they render something sublime. The first pigs to set hoof on Southern soil arrived in 1539, brought by Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto to present-day Tampa Bay, Florida. After docking, some of these early swine escaped and became the ancestors of the razorback pigs that today run wild in southeastern states. Country ham ultimately emerged of necessity in the pre-refrigeration South: like kindred cured hams Spanish serrano and Italian prosciutto, a generous salt cure preserves the meat. A true country ham is cut from the hindquarters of a hog, hip to knee. It’s dry cured in salt and sugar for one to three months, smoked, then aged—a process that ranges from several months to a few years, depending on the maker. The hams typically hail from Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, as the conditions for curing meat need to be warm enough that the ham doesn’t freeze, yet cold enough that it doesn’t spoil. These states are all located on what’s described as the world’s “Ham Belt”—a temperate climate zone bound by latitude that historically produces the world’s most celebrated cured pork.

Country Ham Breakfast Strata Recipe