I just had some reheated pizza for lunch. It was “Quattro Formaggio with Prosciutto,” or, as I would have called it many moons ago,”four cheeses with country ham.” I grew up eating country ham. My grandfather would kill hogs in late fall, rub the hams with a sugar and salt mixture, and hang them up to cure in the family smokehouse. Even though it was called a smokehouse, he never smoked meat, nor did most East Tennessee families.
Around Christmastime of the following year, he would take one of the hams to a grocery store to get it sliced, and we would have ham cooked in a cast iron skillet for breakfast, usually accompanied with fried eggs, grits, and biscuits. Some years my grandmother would cook a whole ham, boiling it for hours in a large pan and then finishing it by baking it in an oven. We would eat off that ham for days; I would take ham biscuits to school in my lunchbox.
The first time I ever ate prosciutto was in Massachusetts at a fancy dinner party; someone had wrapped it around a scallop and broiled them both. “Hey, this stuff is country ham!” I whispered to my wife. I became a fan at that point. Some of the best country ham I have ever had was in Spain. They call it “jamon” there and leave the foot on the ham. You go into restaurants and the jamon is often sitting horizontal on a special holder waiting to be sliced. The photo at the beginning of this post is of jamon hanging in a deli. The little inverted umbrellas beneath the hams are to catch the grease.
The best country ham I have found in Tennessee is just north of Madisonville on Highway 411 at Bentons Smoky Mountain Country Hams. Allan Benton is the proprietor, and he will cheerfully sell whole hams, smoked or regular; slices of ham; and prosciutto. The best way to buy his wares is to step into his store, but if you are out of town, he gladly ships anywhere. Ask about his hickory smoked, thick-sliced bacon.
My father tells the story of the country boy who got a job in an East Tennessee factory. He had brought his “dinner,” as country people used to call lunch, and was eating with his co-workers. His lunch consisted of country ham and cat head biscuits, while most of his buddies were eating white bread and baloney sandwiches. “I can’t wait to get paid,” he confessed, “so I can buy me some of that round meat and square bread.”
Not exactly clear on the concept.
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