Smithfield and DeeDee Dardens Country Hams.
by Anna Buckley
I’d visited Smithfield, Virginia, 5 years ago, by chance really, we were lost. We found a gorgeous old town filled with decorative Victorian houses, old shops (some empty) and incredibly friendly people. An old guy, with a HAM sticker on the rear window of his pick-up truck, pulled over and asked if he could help. We said we were lost…on our way to historic Charlottesville.
“Why would you want to go there? Smithfield is so much prettier and if you want to buy some good food we are the home of HAM.”
So we picked up some country ham, drove around the streets and snapped pics of pretty houses. But it was only a fleeting visit and I was left wanting to know more.
Move forward 5 years later… I’m planning my trip to the United States and wonder whether we might revisit this pretty little place. Jane said not only would we visit but we’d get a personal tour by the fabulous Deborah Wyld, a Smithfield resident and dear friend of my sister.
We had arranged to meet Deborah, for breakfast, at the 260 year old Smithfield Inn (apparently George Washington liked to stay and eat there).
I looked at the menu but deferred to Deborah who ordered the very traditional Smithfield Ham filled sweet potato biscuits and yeast rolls. Within minutes a plateful of these dainty little treats arrived. In Australia we call cookies biscuits. In America biscuits are a sweet scone like roll served with savoury food such ham, chicken or gravy. Strange…but delicious, the salty ham working well with the sweet soft biscuit.
During breakfast Deborah nipped out to the kitchen and returned with Miss Mozell Brown. Miss Mozell tells us she’s been cooking these breakfast rolls (among other things) for 50 years. She seems a little uncomfortable talking to strangers, doesn’t hang around for idle chit-chat and excuses herself saying she has a busy schedule ahead of her and hungry customers that wait for no one. She says ‘goodbye’ and returns to her kitchen.
Deborah had organised a full day and time was ticking away for us as well. We finished up and headed to the main street.
The first colonists of Virginia arrived in Jamestown, from England, in 1607. As the population grew the early settlers began developing land further afield. By 1634 they had begun to work the fertile soil and abundant waters of the Pagan River (initially the tribal lands of the Warrasquyoake Indians). Early colonists claimed that the fish literally jumped into the nets and the fertile soil grew any seed planted in it. The first recorded land purchase was made over 380 years ago by Arthur Smith in 1637.
Today the town is a much visited historical site and many of the old building are being lovingly restored and brought back to life.
Along with the utilitarian businesses of a working town, the main street has its share of pretty little boutiques, cafes and restaurants. It was still too early for the shops to open… but there was plenty to see. Deborah suggested we jump in her car and go for a bit of a look around the district.
And we continued our tour in her quintessentially sexy American car…Wyld by name…wild by nature!?
And here we see the man himself who not only rebooted the ham industry in Smithfield but claimed to have the worlds oldest ham. The 20-year-old ham (accidentally overlooked and left hanging in the rafters of the smoke-house) was used as a promotional tool advertising the superior curing methods of the Gwaltney Smithfield Hams.
In 1926 the state of Virginia regulated that “Smithfield Ham must come from peanut fed hogs raised in the peanut belts of Virginia and North Carolina. The hams must be salt cured, smoked and dry hung for no less than 6 months. All aging must be done within the corporate limits of the Town of Smithfield”.
Today Smithfield Foods, the towns largest employer, is the worlds biggest producer and processor of pork in the world.
By why peanuts and hogs? The lovely Tracy Neikirk of the Isle of Wight County Museum was on hand to answer these questions. She said that hogs were often left to roam wild on the small estuarine islands and undeveloped lands. Hogs were the most self-sufficient of all livestock and could be easily left to forage, thrive and populate an area without human intervention, thus providing a rich reserve of food for the early colonists.
As for the peanuts… it is believed they were introduced by African slaves The crops thrived in the fertile soils and grew below ground, protecting them from the ravaging effects of fire when war or civil unrest interrupted.
The pigs were often left to forage in the peanut fields after harvest, eating the remaining nuts and fertilising the soil in the process…a perfect symbiosis that saw a successful agricultural economy develop in Smithfield.
It seems that the Gwaltneys had a thing for food relics and the museum also proudly houses the world’s oldest peanut. Gwaltney senior marked the nut and used it to promote his peanut business. Gotta love the Gwaltneys… although it is rumoured these captains of industry loved their old stuff more than they loved their own progeny!?
Next time you’re in town check out this fascinating museum…there’s so much more to be discovered than the Gwaltneys old nuts!
We toured the back streets, saw more historical sites and chatted away to many of Deborah’s Smithfield friends… very hungry work! By Midday we all agreed that a little more Ham would be a very good thing. We headed to ‘A Taste of Smithfield’ where I ordered the low-cal pork, bacon and crab burger with a side of slimming mac and cheese! Bloody yummy and one of THE best burgers I’d ever eaten!
We exited via the shop and picked up a couple of souvenirs!
Sadly we had to say farewell to Deborah, (ask a busy woman!?) but she wasn’t abandoning us just passing over the ‘tour guide’ baton to another dynamic woman…DeeDee Darden?
Deborah didn’t give much away other than to set the co-ordinates on our GPS and send us off deep into the countryside.
It was like something from a distant time. We made enquiries at the counter and the polite woman told us we were expected but that DeeDee was not quite ready as she was in the middle of picking peanuts. We were happy to wait, looking around the store and reminiscing about the days when our darling dad had owned a general store in a small country town not so different to this. It all felt so familiar.
We didn’t wait for long before we were told to head out across the road to meet DeeDee. She welcomed us with a big hug and invited us to check out her smoke house.
Our eyes adjusted slowly to the dark, smoke blackened space and we looked up to see layer upon layer of pork legs hanging from the rafters. Curing was DeeDee’s speciality and today she was going to reveal the secrets of her much sought after hams. She no longer raises hogs (the rules and regulations are too prohibitive) but instead buys the pork meat directly from the Smithfield abattoir in the cool months of the year. The meat is packed in salt and left for 1.5 days per lb. After that time the salt is washed off, the pork is coated in a spicy pepper rub, strung and left to hang in the rafters. Once the rafters are filled this metal drum is loaded with hickory and apple wood, lit and left to smoulder slowly until all the wood is burnt. The hams are left to cure for at least six months. Once this time is up the hams are boiled gently for three hours, then left to cool for another three before they are ready to be sold. Traditionally the hams would be sold unboiled but people these days prefer to leave this tedious job to DeeDee. The hams are then de-boned and packaged or… …sliced and packed ready to fill the ham biscuits like the ones we ate for breakfast earlier this morning.Before we leave Jane and I couldn’t resist buying a few things…DeeDees house made fresh pork sausages, choc coated peanuts, traditional lemonade, root beer, American Cheddar and HAM…of course!It was getting late and I could sense that this hard-working woman still had many hours of toil before she got to put her feet up. Pigs and peanuts were still calling…
We thanked DeeDee for opening up her smoke house, telling us her secrets, letting us into her world. For giving up so much of her valuable time to show us, complete strangers from Australia, a generations old technique of producing some of the worlds most delicious ham.
DeeDee Darden you are a legend and living treasure. The information you shared was invaluable to the writing of my next book. Thanks so much, meeting you was one of the best experiences of my trip.
And to the fabulous Ms Wyld how can I ever thank you enough for unlocking the secrets of this beautiful part of the world, of this gorgeous little town that had intrigued me all those years ago…x
I would encourage all of you to visit someday.
And now I really should get back to writing that new book!
Cheers, Anna xx
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