Sunday, November 24, 2013

'You Can't Hurt Ham' -- especially with this recipe for the best ham you ever ate

In his 2012 album "Music to My Ears," Ricky Skaggs has a funny song about bluegrass music pioneer Bill Monroe's fondness for ham -- and what happened late one night on the bus between gigs.  "Mon," as his friends called Monroe, was hungry as they raced through the evening but nothing was open at that late hour. A banjo player who had just joined the Blue Grass Boys tour volunteered that his momma had sent him off with a bag of country ham biscuits -- but the bag was getting a little greasy and the ham moldy and none of it looked like much.  In Skaggs' and Gordon Kennedy's lyrics, the great bandleader and inventor of the high lonesome sound didn't care what it looked like: "Mon said 'Boy, hand me that bag/You know you can't hurt ham.'"  At least one reviewer predicted "You Can't Hurt Ham" will become a bluegrass standard in due time.

I understand what Monroe meant about not hurting ham, but I also know this: You can fix ham, and you can fix pretty good ham. But if you want to fix a great ham, you need a sure-fire way to do it. And for that I've learned to go with the Wrap-Cook Ham method championed by my friend Barnie Day of Meadows of Dan, VA., which he first learned from Robert Crumpton Sr. of Person County, N.C. It's not only sure-fire and delicious; it's also easy.

I've written about this several times before -- first in The Charlotte Observer during my newspapering days not long before Christmas 2010.  But then I realized that Christmas isn't the only time to do up a ham just right. There's Thanksgiving as well, plus any other time of the year, holiday or not.  So I'm passing it along right now so that you have plenty of time to find you a ham and cook it up for the crowd.

Now, I could explain it in my own words, but Barnie's story is the read deal, and a good read to boot, so you can't miss. Herewith, the Hon. Barnie K. Day:

This is the world’s best way to cook a country ham.  Guaranteed.  Period.  Scout’s honor.  Cross my heart and hope to die.  And it’s not original.  Of course, I stole it.  And, as luck would have it, it is also the easiest.  Often the case.  We overcomplicate a lot of things.  Cooking a ham is one of them.

Let’s start with the ham itself, and how it was cured. 

There are lots of run-of-the-mill brands, some of them old and famous but still run-of-the-mill, brands that owe their reputations more to glossy catalogues and clever and expensive marketing campaigns than they do to judge-by-eating juries. 

Many of these hams are cured “inside out,” needle-embalmed with nitrate injections.  They are not the best hams -- often more expensive -- but not the best.

Still, these hams eat okay -- unless you’ve eaten ham cured like your granddaddy cured it, ham cured the old way.

He cured his hams “outside in.”  He didn’t know about nitrate injections.  (And if he had, he wouldn’t have done it to his hams!)  He simply packed his fresh in plain salt for six to eight weeks, took them up, washed and dried them, maybe smoked them a little, maybe not, probably peppered them, hung them in cotton sacking in a cool place, out of reach of the dogs, and aged them for several months. 

A note here:  don’t be flummoxed by the term “sugar cured.”  Often salt is mixed with sugar, with pepper, with molasses, with honey -- all kinds of stuff -- and labeled some fancy “cure,” or another, but these things -- including smoke -- be it apple wood, hickory, whatever -- only flavor hams.  What cures, or preserves, a ham is the salt that it absorbs during the curing process. 

Buy whatever brand you want.  For my money, the best country ham in this part of the world, the one closest to what your granddaddy cured, is a Clifty Farm ham, processed for 60 years or so by the Murphey Family, in Paris, Tennessee.  They’re usually available, and reasonably priced, across Southside Virginia around Christmastime.  ($1.79 a pound at the Piggly Wiggly in Danville.)

Okay, now let’s cook that bad boy!

Unwrap the ham and wash it.  Yeah, they all have a little mold.  No big deal.  Really.  It would cause me some concern if it didn’t have mold on it.  Just palm it off with a little warm water.  Two minutes, tops. 

Put the ham in a pot that you have a top for.  I always have to cut the hock off so it will fit the pot I use.  They’ll cut the hock off for you at the grocery store.  If I have to tell you what that hock is good for, stop reading this and move on.  You got no business with a country ham.  Either that, or you’re a Yankee, and threw the ham out when you saw the mold.

Fill the pot with water until the ham is covered with 3-4 inches, put the top on, and bring it to a boil.

Now here is the trick to this:  As soon as it begins to boil, you take it off the stove.  That’s right.  Off the stove when it begins to boil.  Set it somewhere where it will be out of your way. 

Now we’re going to wrap that puppy up.  Pot and all.  You can use most anything -- towels, an old blanket, a quilt, a sleeping bag.  The patio lounge cushion works well.  That’s what I use.  The idea is to insulate the pot so that it holds the heat.

I put an inch or so of newspaper under the pot, the same amount on top, wrap the patio cushion around it, and tie the cushion in place with baling twine.  This doesn’t take five minutes.  Just make sure it’s insulated good.

When you get it wrapped, leave it alone.  Walk away from it.  Forget about it for 12 hours.  Just let it sit.

After 12 hours, remove the wrap, and take the ham out of the pot and put it on a baking pan.  Careful here—even after sitting 12 hours, the water will be too hot for you to put your hands in.

Trim the skin off, score a diamond pattern on the thin layer of encasing fat, rub into it a cup of white sugar, put the ham -- uncovered -- in the oven and bake it for 2 hours at 275 degrees.  And that’s it.  You’re done.  Let it cool before slicing.

Postscript:  A year ago the former Party Doll Strickland and I were heading out West a few days before Christmas to spend the holidays in Boise, ID with our son John and his girlfriend Juta.  You'd have a hard time finding a Clifty Farms ham in Idaho, but Slaughter's Grocery in Floyd, VA. often has a bunch of them, so we volunteered to fly the ham out West with us. We sacked it up in a knapsack and drove to Charlotte to catch our plane.  The Transportation Security Administration folks ran that knapsack through their scanner and got real quiet and real studious for awhile, concentrating on what in the world was that thing on their TV screen.  They drew a crowd of other TSA workers. Brows furrowed, fingers pointed and muffled conversations ensued -- until a TSA supervisor came scuttling over and said in a loud voice, "I know what it is, it's a ham somebody's taking with them. My momma gets one every year and takes it back to New York with her because they don't have anything like it up there."

We had a good laugh, and the Merriest of Christmases.  I hope you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving and a memorable holiday season this year.

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Monday, November 18, 2013

Bringing the boys home

The uncle I never knew died 95 years and one month ago today, going over the top on the Hindenburg Line in a forgotten place in 1918, just a few weeks before the end of World War 1.  If I read through the lines correctly on the military report, he practically vanished when hit by a shell early that morning. Still, there were some remains, and thus he was buried in a military cemetery somewhere in France.

My mother -- nearly 12 years old when her brother was killed -- told me how her father nearly lost everything he had while trying to bring his son back home to the family plot in Anderson, S.C.  He made innumerable train trips to Washington to plead with the men who sent Victor St. Clair Minor overseas to at least do him the honor of returning him back home. Several years after the war, St. Clair and a few of his effects came home and he was buried in the little Baptist churchyard where our family tended their dead. I have a few of St. Clair's things -- one of his dog tags, a little bronze container that might have kept oil for his machine gun crew, and a couple of photographs.

I was thinking about St. Clair a week ago on Veteran's Day -- the date of Nov. 11 was chosen for Veterans Day because that's the date the War to End All Wars ended.  While looking for something else I had come across my dog tags from my days in the Army in the late 1960s.  And I thought about others of our clan who served under arms.  Another uncle was a radioman in World War II, and St. Clair's older brother, Charlie, served in two campaigns as a cavalryman.  The man for whom I was named, John Monie, served in the Confederacy and was taken prisoner. My great grandfather, the Rev. A.D. Betts, was a Civil War chaplain whose diary records how he held wounded and dying men of both sides in places like Gettysburg.

So far as I know St. Clair was the only one of our family whose return to the United States was delayed after World War I.  We were lucky, because so many American families never found out what happened to their loved ones. Sailors went to the bottom of the sea, out of reach for eternity, and a great many soldiers and airmen were buried in unmarked and still unfound graves -- when there were any remains to bury.

I've been reading Rick Atkinson's "The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945," third in his Liberation Trilogy. Atkinson is a superb reporter and writer, and his book is a fine piece of work. On pages 638, 639 and 640 I found tears rolling down my cheeks as I read about the unprecedented effort to bring the boys home after WW II. There were 270,000 identifiable American dead whose families were asked if they wanted the remains of their sons and brothers sent home, or interred in Europe with their comrades. More than 60 percent came home, at an average cost to the government of $564.50 each, Atkinson wrote. More than 5,000 began their journey aboard the Joseph V. Connolly, the first of 21 "ghost ships" that would bring the GIs home.  Thirty thousand Belgians, Atkinson went on, promised to look after the tens of thousands of Americans who would remain buried in Europe -- "'as if,' one man vowed, 'their tombs were our children's.'"

Bodies came off ships like the "Connolly" in New York and were loaded onto trains that would take them home. "Among those waiting was Henry A. Wright, a widower who lived on a farm in southwestern Missouri... One by one his dead sons arrived at the local train station." There was Sgt. Frank Wright, killed on Christmas Eve 1944; Private Harold Wright, who died in a German POW camp; and Private Elton Wright, who died in Germany just two weeks before the end of the war.  

"Gray and stooped, the elder Wright watched as the caskets were carried into the rustic bedroom where each boy had been born," Atkinson wrote. Neighbors kept vigil overnight, carpeting the floor with roses, and in the morning they bore the brothers to Hilltop Cemetery for burial side by side by side beneath an iron sky.... Thus did the fallen return from Europe..."

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

'Wild Kingdom' up here

Since sometime in mid-summer we've known that things were a bit different this year on Belcher Mountain.  We had some photographic evidence from our friends the McCraws, a family of hunters from Mt. Airy who have been coming up here for years to hunt deer during the seasons and to scout for wildlife during the off-season.  They keep three deerstands up here, and use an automatic wildlife camera to see what's shaking.

Here's a picture of a critter they call "Mr. Grumpy," taken on Aug. 15 from a camera mounted on a tree a couple hundred feet west of my woodworking shop.

A few days ago Martha B. and our aging French Brittany Spaniel were walking across one of our fields and ran into one of the McCraws, sitting with his rifle by the old corncrib on a warm fall afternoon. She heard that "Mr. Grumpy" might in fact be a "Ms. Grumpy" -- one of four bears they have identified occupying the woods of our property, that of our out-of-town neighbor to our north and probably also that of the our old friends, the late Burke Davis and Judy Halliburton Burnett Davis, who had a lovely home constructed from old hand-hewn barn timbers across the road to our northwest.  We suspect it was one of these bears who tore up part of Burke's prized blueberry patch enclosure of chicken wire stretched on a steel frame last summer. Might have been the same bear that got into one of our blueberry patches in late summer and laid waste to parts of two old but productive blueberry bushes.

One of the McCraws said that in addition to the four bears there are innumerable deer, four coyotes and, in one eyepopping incident, a bobcat who plopped down in the grass within his view from one of the deerstands.  He said birds were flitting about, and when one of them made the mistake of lighting in the grass within reach of the bobcat, a paw whipped out, snatched the bird and became a quick snack for the cat.  These woods, they say, are getting to be something of "The Wild Kingdom."

A fellow who helps a lot of folks up here keep their plumbing in working order, dropped by the other evening to pass along that some creature had torn off the crawl-space access door to a house down the road, as well as raked his claws on some nearby pine trees.  He was giving that crawlspace a pretty wide berth for a little while, he said, just in case an impatient bear with a bad attitude had moved in and was looking for something else to claw to ribbons.

Saturday night we had finished burning a pile of brush and were making a final run to make sure the fire was out. As we drove the pickup along our driveway our headlights flashed on something we hadn't seen before -- two bucks with impressive racks fighting, or at least locking horns while a group of three does a hundred feet or so away watched in our hayfield.  I hated that we spoiled the show for the deer -- or interfered with whatever entertainment the deer had planned for that night. But it was riveting to watch in the few moments before all five deer took off for the nearby woods. Looked to me like those boys were having a fine old time, showing off for the girls and maybe hoping to get lucky. It was, after all, Saturday night in the Blue Ridge.