Last week I took the icy (and at times unpaved) back roads of North Carolina and Virginia to collect oral histories about cured meat traditions in the region. I started in Smithfield, North Carolina (absolutely no relation to Smithfield Ham) where I interviewed Rufus Brown, the curemaster of Johnston County Hams. He’s carrying on the traditions passed down from his father, Jesse.
“We shared a tiny office. It was maybe half as big as this one. Dad had his way of doing stuff, and if I saw something better or something that we could change and do faster it was hard getting a new idea past him. But I cherish that. I got tired of hearing the stories all the time, the same ones, but I’d give anything to hear them now.” — Rufus Brown, Johnston County Hams
I visited Edwards & Sons in Surry, Virginia and interviewed Sam Edwards III about the legacy his family has left and continues to build for country ham. Afterward, he graciously bought me a sandwich that I wish I were still eating.
In the Shenandoah Valley just miles from the West Virginia border, I arrived at Turner Ham House before dawn in subzero temperatures to document Ron Turner and crew during the annual curing process. I stayed for the famous fried ham sandwich lunch, cooked by Ron’s wife, Peg, and his mother, Lena.
In Portsmouth, Virginia, Sydney Meers explained to me how he’s applying his Pappy’s curing recipe from Northern Mississippi to the small batch of hams hanging in his little custom-built red shed, just across the street from his restaurant, Stove.
Next week, I’ll ramble around Kentucky and Tennessee. I’ll probably still have salt on my winter coat, as the smell of smoke lingers in my car. Which is fine by me.
Sara Wood is our oral historian based in Wilmington, NC. She’s in the field for us right now, rambling the region to document cured meats.