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.

See the smokehouse at the Daniel Boone Homestead here.

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