Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Eighteenth Century Living: Smoked Ham

Salted smoke-cured ham. Ham biscuits. Country ham gravy. Those are tastes from my childhood that I miss. My maternal forbears raised hogs and smoked their hams since, I suppose, the first of them left England and came to the Virginia/North Carolina border area in the early 1600s. My grandfather moved his family north to Maryland in the 1950s, built the house where we were raised, and never went back to farm life, aside from turning every available plot of ground around our house into a productive garden. But every so often he and my grandmother would travel south to visit family in Virginia and come home with a country ham, which would hang in our shed, all crusty brown. How wonderful those rare dinners when it was featured as the main course.

As a child I had no idea why that ham tasted different--and so much better to my way of thinking--than the sweet hams we bought at the local grocery. Researching my eighteenth century-set novel, KINDRED, was a little like exploring bits of my childhood I'd taken for granted, faint echoes of 18C lifeways that had lingered into the 1970s, the era of my childhood.

One of the best set of books I can recommend for writers researching rural or mountain life are the Foxfire series. With titles like Ghost stories, spring wild plant foods, spinning and weaving, midwifing, burial customs, corn shuckin's, wagon making and more affairs of plain living, and Animal care, banjos and dulcimers, hide tanning, summer and fall wild plant foods, butter churns, ginseng, and still more affairs of plain living, how could anyone interested in mountain life, or eastern rural life in past centuries, not feel like they've found a gold mine? I have only the first three, but there are something like 12 books in this series.

Hog butchering was done after the first cold snap, to help preserve the meat, often not until November or even December. The hams and other cuts of meat were first rubbed with a salt mixture (sometimes mixed with molasses and pepper or other spices) and allowed to cure for a few weeks. Then the meat was hung inside the smokehouse on hooks or suspended by rope from the rafters. Fires were built directly on the ground if it was a dirt floor, and had to be carefully maintained for the entire smoking process. Woods like hickory or apple flavored the meat, and the end result produced a crust that kept away the insect pests. Some families built their smokehouses with plenty of ventilation, while others built them tight, to trap the smoke. 

Smokehouse at Cade's Cove, TN.

See the smokehouse at the Daniel Boone Homestead here.


  1. Love the descriptions and information. My sweet hubby talks about his grandfather's smoke house and how wonderful the flavors of the meat. We've had the privilege of visiting Cades Cove and Daniel Boone's homestead. I met my hubby in North Carolina and his family is rooted in Tennessee. Such beautiful country!

  2. Lisa,

    I love the Blue Ridge and the border country. I had a lovely visit to Cade's Cove a few years ago, but have yet to see the Daniel Boone homestead.

    I do miss that ham, though. :)

  3. Oh, all this ham talk makes me more homesick than ever:) Great post! Nothing like ham biscuits with a little red eye gravy. Or grits, fried apples, and all the rest. Aren't those Foxfire books amazing? I just checked out another one and finished reading and hated to take it back. Need to work on my own collection. There's no better source for authentic research!

  4. Laura,

    It was through you I discovered the Foxfire books. However did I miss them through most of my Kindred research? If ever they were recommended to me before this year, it slipped my mind before I could follow through. Since I hope to be writing 18C or frontier fiction for a good long while, they'll continue to be a handy resource to have on my shelf.

    My grandmother made red eye gravy, but I never learned how. We never ate grits, until I decided to find out what they were like. Pretty good, but I was raised on "parritch" and still like that best. Our house was fun to grow up in. My grandparents lived upstairs in their own connected apartment, and the door between was always open. Two kitchens, two mealtimes. Downstairs it was mid-Atlantic fare for the most part, but upstairs it was all southern. The iced tea downstairs was unsweetened, but upstairs it was sweet enough to hurt your teeth.

  5. Very interesting. My grandfather was a pig farmer. Now I'd like to ask my mom more about it. He died when I was only 2 so I never tasted one of his hams. It is fascinating to learn about history from one another's true experiences and own family background.

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  7. Carla,

    Definitely ask her for some stories. You never know what you might uncover. :) Another thing my mom's extended family have in common with my Kindred farm, Mountain Laurel, is raising tobacco. She remembers visiting cousins and going to pick the worms off the plants, and later at harvest being allowed to make her own stick of leaves to hang in the curing barn. I've been in some of their curing barns, but the sense impressions of that experience sit right at the edge of my memory, fuzzy at the edges. I had a scene depicting the worm-picking in the earlier drafts of Kindred. It was fun to write, and helped me to see Seona's world, but it wasn't heavy on plot so it had to go. I wish I could go back in time, even a few years, and question the generation that has so recently passed away. It wasn't until I was well into writing Kindred that I realized how very much of my ancestors' lives the setting reflected, though I never set out to do so.

  8. Hi Lori,

    Sounds like a wonderful sounding resource. I'll have to check into it. My next book is mid 1800's. But I'm sure all of the information in the books is applicable to that time period as well. I love all of the details, but I find the biggest struggle, especially as I edit, is knowing what of that detail to keep! It's so tricky to weave it all in without over-doing it! And it's easy to cut too much and thus lose some of the rich flavor those details bring.

  9. Jody,

    Yes, the Foxfire books are definitely applicable to the 1800s. The information was gathered in the mid-1900s from people still practicing many of these traditional lifeways that date back centuries.

    I agree completely about how hard it is to know how much day-to-day historical detail to leave in. I try to be sparing, but it takes a fresh set of eyes to know where more or less would be better. We're the ones who did the research, so we see more than what's on the page.

  10. I so wish we could share every little detail that we discover in our story research. At least it makes our own lives richer. I will definitely find out more. BTW, check out a comment that I make at Laura's site on her Twinkies post!

  11. Carla,

    We all must have food on the brain today. Or are we only "feeding" each others cravings? I'm a Little Debbies girl, all the way.

  12. Such good stuff! I'm actually a history nut, but in the interest of keeping sanity, I write contemporaries so I don't get lost in all that research. :-)

    When I research things like that for a book I'm always waaay too tempted to put in too much detail about it. Like, ooo! I know this!

    So glad you shared that with us though. I love it!

  13. Maisey,

    So glad you dropped in to comment because now I can announce to anyone else who comes by that yesterday YOU WERE OFFERED A TWO BOOK CONTRACT!

    Head on over to Maisey's blog for the rest of the story.