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.