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Small American Town Calls Itself World's Ham Capital


Genuine Smithfield hams have graced dinner tables in the U.S. since nearly the settlement of the nation itself. VOA's Liu Enming recently traveled to the self-proclaimed "Ham Capital of the World," Smithfield, a quaint town of 6500 residents in the eastern state of Virginia and traces the history and the art of making the famous Smithfield ham. Jim Bertel narrates.

Virginia ham is known for its superb taste and is a popular dish at Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners in the U.S.

Larry Santure, Director of Sales at Smithfield Foods, tells the story of Virginia ham. "The history of Virginia ham is very unique and very interesting. Marco Polo actually brought the basis of curing the Virginia ham to Italy from China, and they thought about how they could make the ham in Italy, and this turned out to be the prosciutto. The settlers brought the formula for making prosciutto with them to the United States."

Smithfield was one of the earliest towns colonized near Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America. Santure says the area's ham tradition owes much to the Native Americans living there.

Santure continues, "The Indians have devices and methods of taking sea water from the oceans not far from here and dehydrating it and producing salt, which is critical to making cured hams."

Many consider genuine Smithfield ham the crown jewel of Virginia hams because of the meticulous way it is made.

"We get the hams for processing within one to two days after the slaughter of the animal. So the meat is fresh,” says Santure. We take the salt mixture, rub it into the meat, into the muscle. And we fully cover it. Then we stack it so that the face of the ham is out, so the moisture can come out."

Smithfield ham is salt cured for at least 50 days at three degrees Celsius. The next step is for the ham to be heated and smoked using hickory and fruitwood, a technique dating back more than 200 years.

"It allows the concentration to equalize throughout the muscle and the whole ham. Then we go through a process of heating the ham. In this particular area, we use a smoke. That's a time-honored way that we acquired actually from the Indians long, long ago."

Smithfield ham is salted, cooled and smoked. The entire dry-cure process takes at least 180 days before the distinctively delicious ham makes its way to dinner tables. Judy Winslow, Director of Tourism for Smithfield and Isle of Wight County, says anytime is the right time for a Smithfield ham.

"We do not have a special occasion or probably any occasion in town that Smithfield ham is not served,” says Winslow. “Certainly when anyone has guests in from out of town, it's always on the table."