Bought me some ham a couple weeks back.
Purchasing a ham would not ordinarily warrant an ordinary column but it was no ordinary ham. It was one of those hand-cured Tennessee hams from a family that’s been smoking hams since Davy Crockett roamed the neighborhood.
The whole ham family is called the Bentons and six months ago the New York Times did a long article describing the aging process, the old fashioned hand rubbing, and the hickory smoke that brings each ham that pure, unadulterated salty flavor beloved by generations.
Keep in mind that part about “salty flavor.”
So beloved are these hams that people drive from all over, maybe even Ukiah, to stand around waiting for another Benton ham to pop out. Or else they order their ham online, like I did.
(NOTE: I got a ham in spite of a rave review given by the New York Times reporter. This suggests not every Times writer is always lying, only its op-ed columnists.)
You’d assume a ham aged this long (years, I think) and with this kind of pedigree, heritage and reputation would be an expensive investment, but it came out at a people’s price of $79, plus shipping.
Quite reasonable I thought, and I agreed with myself many more times when my box of cured, smoked ham was delivered by UPS an hour or two later.
It weighed 17 lbs, bone included.
That’s a wallet-friendly price for an artisan food product that is hand-cured, gently smoked, and has bedtime stories read to it at night followed by sweet lullabies.
It means my ham cost less than 17 lbs of Spam, though this will not be a “ham-versus-Spam” column. Ham is already far outside the boundaries of my usual AVA material and I’ll go no further afield describing canning techniques at Hormel Foods. (But I doubt hickory smoke and years of cuddling are invested in a can of Spam.)
So I have a great big ham on the kitchen counter, outfitted in dressy cheesecloth outside a plain brown wrapper. I stare at it, thinking just how much it does not look like a honey baked spiral-cut ham, or a Smithfield ham or deli ham or a can of Spam.
I am not a geneticist. I’m not even a farmer. I don’t know a pig from a sow from a stoat from a hog from a camel from a boar. But I do suspect the Benton family sent me a ham that, although mostly of swine, has a fair amount of Brontosaurus on its daddy’s side.
The bone is big as the business end of a baseball bat, but tastier in soup. The ham’s hide, or cover, or skin, is like leather but not the soft, smooth, fine suede-like chewable leather of your car’s upholstery. It’s a ham hide capable of fending off attacks from cave men wielding sharp sticks and throwing big rocks and planning a Brontosaurus BBQ later in the day.
It was way too much pig for my feeble assortment of kitchen knives, though I was able to hack off a chunk after about 20 minutes of sawing with the biggest blade we have.
Remember that part about “salty flavor”? I’ll never forget it.
Maybe some of that hand-rubbing involves a long sodium soak, or maybe the piglets spend their youth grazing at the Bonneville flats in Utah. If Dr. Portnoff, my Ukiah cardiologist, knew I was consuming more than a thimble-full of Benton Hickory Smoked Ham a month he’d have me strapped to a heart monitor in the emergency room.
What’s to be done with the remaining ham? My wife and kids change the subject whenever I suggest yet another ham-centric meal. It might make a fine doorstop, and a progressively more aromatic one, as the months wear on.
It’s easily enough ham to last me a lifetime, including feeding whoever shows up for my funeral services (“Welcome Mourners! Free Beer! Free Ham Sandwiches!”) with still more ham to leave to grandchildren and homeless kitchens.
It’s a bit tough and a mite salty, but with a scant 12 or so more lbs. to get through I think hefty hunks of tasty Benton Hickory Smoked ham will make fine Christmas presents for some of my lucky acquaintances who aren’t exactly friends.
(Tom Hine also spent years as a member of the journalism herd, where he, too, often made loud newspaper noises over nothing.)