hams or Smithfield hams are universally recognized to be the country's
finest, and serving these hams with red eye gravy is a regional specialty.
Red eye gravy is well known in the South, but little known in the rest of
the United States. The gravy is also called bird-eye gravy, poor man's gravy,
red ham gravy, and muddy gravy. These hams are very salty and
the gravy, made from drippings and black coffee, packs a punch. It is
continually debated as to whether the best red eye gravy is made with water
or black coffee.
Ham 101 to learn all about cooking hams and more great
Ham and Pork Recipes.
Country Hams History:
The pig dates back 40 million years to
fossils which indicate that wild pig-like animals roamed forest and swamps
in Europe and Asia. By 4900 B.C. pigs were domesticated in China, and were
being raised in Europe by 1500 B.C. The curing of pork dates back hundreds
of years. Exactly when the first pork was cured and who cured it no one
really knows. History traces the first attempts to the ancient Gauls who are
purported to have salted, smoked and dried pork.
1539 - Hernando de Soto (1469-1542), a
Spanish explorer and wealthy captain, introduced hogs to North America
when he brought a small herb of 13 pigs to Florida. In the spring of 1540,
DeSoto's forces left Florida with their herd of hogs headed into Georgia.
Upon his death, his estate auctioned off 700 hogs, all the descendants from
the original, not including the ones his troops had consumed.
1608 - Hams have been produced in America
since the settling of Jamestown in the early 1600s. Pigs were not native to
the Jamestown area, but were brought to the colonies of Virginia from and
England and Bermuda to raise for food and the sport of wild boar hunting.
The climate of Virginia was so perfect for raising pigs, that they
multiplied and became so plentiful that they became a nuisance to the
settlers. The settlers rounded the pigs up and transported them to an island
in the James River. This island became known as "Hog Island." These wild
pigs were the principal food for new settlers, as well as the Indians,
because they were available all the year and more easily caught than wild
game and fish. Since the Native Indians had been curing venison by smoking
long before the settlers arrived in Jamestown, they taught them to cure meat
with salt or "magic white sand." Their methods of salting, smoking and aging
venison were adapted by the white man to preserving the meat of the
plentiful razorback hog.
1902 - Smithfield, Virginia's most famous
resident is a ham. The Isle of Wight Museum located in Smithfield, Virginia
is home to the "World's Oldest Smithfield Ham." Originally cured in 1902,
this ham somehow escaped shipping and turned up several years later. Since
this ham has never been under refrigeration, P.D. Gwaltney, dealers in
groceries, dry goods, and general merchandising, decided to keep it and see
how long it would last. This pet ham became Gwaltney's mascot and was
featured in "Ripley's Believe It or Not" as the worlds oldest ham in
the 1900s and again in 2003. Gwaltney even insured it for $1,000 by Lloyds
According to the account on the
Mr. Gwaltney had a brass collar placed around the hock that read, 'Mr.
Gwaltney's Pet Ham,' and in 1934 he took the 'Pet Ham' to Washington with
him to the American Bankers Association Convention. Quite a stir was created
when he asked the desk clerk at the hotel to put his suitcase in the hotel
vault. The desk clerk inquired as to what was in the suitcase, and Mr.
Gwaltney explained that it was his 'Pet Ham' which was insured for five
thousand dollars. The next day a Washington paper carried the story about
Mr. Gwaltney and his 'Pet Ham.'"
1926 - The Virginia General Assembly passed
a law that said only peanut-fed hogs, cured and processed in the town of
Smithfield, could be called Smithfield hams. It was the practice to let pigs
roam the peanut fields, foraging for peanuts missed during harvesting. Later
the peanut feed stipulation was dropped and the hogs are fed a variety of
grains. Today, there are only four companies that can legally sell
their products as Smithfield hams. All others are called country hams.
Red Eye Gravy Recipe:
According to legend and not necessarily facts, Andrew
Jackson (1767-1845), 7th President of the United States, who was an American
General at the time, called his cook over to tell him what to prepare. The
cook had been drinking "moonshine" corn whiskey the night before and his
eyes were as red as fire. General Jackson told the cook to bring him some
country ham with gravy as red as his eyes. Some men nearby heard the general
and from then on, ham gravy became "Red Eye Gravy."
Recipe from The Chef's Secret Cook Book by Louis Szathmary, 1971. The red eyes are the little
specks of hot fat swimming on the top of this sauce.
Yields: serves many
Prep time: 5 min
Cook time: 3 min
Pan juices from frying a 1-pound ham slice (about 1/4-inch thick)
1/2 cup strong black coffee
Fry the ham slice in the usual
manner. Deglaze the frying pan with the coffee, scraping all bits and pieces
loose from the bottom of the pan. Boil mixture for approximately 2 to 3
minutes or until reduced in half. Season with pepper and Worcestershire to your taste.
Pour Red Eye Gravy over cooked ham slice.
NOTES: Some ham maybe too dry
to have any pan juices after frying. In this case, before adding the coffee,
add 1/3 cup hot water. Then add the coffee to do the deglazing.
7000 Years of Pork
Domestication, Missouri Agricultural Statistics Service, Missouri Farm Facts.
Ham It Up In
Smithfield, Virginia, Virginia Wind, an internet web site.
Hernando de Soto,
Virtualogy, A Virtual Education Project, an internet web site.
History of Virginia Country
Hams: From Jamestown to World Renown.
I'll Have What They're
Having - Legendary Local Cuisine, by Linda Stradley, ThreeFroks, Globe Pequot
Press, Guilford, Connecticut.
Smithfield Ham Timeline.