On the back roads in West Kentucky, artisan ham makers like Charles Gatton Jr. continue traditions born of necessity before the days of refrigeration.
Gatton was about five years old when he started helping his father and uncle dry rub, cure and smoke hams made from the hogs raised on the family farm. The Gatton business, Father’s Country Hams in Bremen, Ky., first opened in the 1950s, but the Gattons have been making hams much longer than that. Gatton’s great great grandparents started the farm in the 1840 at a time when putting food up for the winter was part of farm life and many families had their own special cure recipes and techniques.
Now Gatton, using his century plus old family recipe, turns out not only country style hams but also bacons, pork cracklings and sausages. The work is labor intensive and the shrinkage from curing and aging (each ham takes about a year before it’s ready to be sold) is about 30 percent, meaning an 18 pound fresh ham might end up weighing 9 to 10 pounds by the time it’s ready to be sold. Though country hams can be salty (after all most dry rubs are salt, which is the preservative preventing the hams from spoiling during the aging process, along with sugar and maybe a little pepper), Gatton says his hams have less salt than many. In comparison to many grocery store hams where water and preservatives are injected, it’s a whole different taste thing.
“A lot of the way we do things hasn’t changed that much for more than a hundred plus years,” Gatton tells me as he takes me on a tour where we pass rafter after rafter hung with smoked hams, their color a beautiful rich pecan. The wooden walls are stained almost black from years of smoking and the aroma is of hickory wood and the salty sweet meaty flavor of the hams.
What has changed is there are a lot fewer dry smoked hams being made at home anymore. So now those carrying on this heritage are people like Gatton. For those wanting to try country hams, West Kentucky seems to be the place. Of the top five country ham producers in the U.S., one is in Virginia, one in Tennessee and the other three—Father’s, Broadbent Country Hams and Colonel Newsom’s Old Mill Store—in West Kentucky, all within an easy drive.
For more information about Father’s Country Hams, call (270) 525-3554 or visit fatherscountryhams.com.
The following recipes are courtesy of Father’s Country Hams.
Sliced Country Ham Slices
Sprinkle both sides of ham slices with brown sugar and black pepper. Brown both sides in skillet over low temperature. Cover for 5 minutes to tenderize.
Red Eye Gravy with Fried Country Ham
After ham is fried pour dripping into small bowl, add just enough hot water to skillet to dissolve residue, stir, let boil and pour into bowl. Place ham on hot biscuits and cover with the red gravy.
Mother Lorene Gatton's Corn Pudding
2/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1 tablespoon cornstarch
4 cups corn
1 stick butter, melted
1-1/2 pints whipping cream
Beat eggs in blender. Add salt, sugar, black pepper and cornstarch and beat again. Pour mixture over corn. Add melted butter. Add whipping cream
Stir mixture. Pour in greased baking dish, drizzle butter on top. Bake at 325 degrees for 1 hour.
Country Ham Salad
1 package ground country ham
1 cup salad dressing or mayonnaise
1/2 cup sweet pickle salad
1 teaspoon pure prepared mustard
Optional: You may use diced pimentos, water chestnuts, and chopped celery
Mix well. Serve on rye bread, crackers and or stuffed in ripe tomatoes for a salad.
Country Ham Balls
2 pounds ground country ham
1 pound pork sausage
1 cup dry bread crumbs
Mix ingredients together and add enough milk to roll into balls.
Sauce for Father's Country Ham Balls
2 cups brown sugar
1 tablespoon prepared mustard
1 cup water
1 cup white vinegar
Mix together in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Pour 1/2 or more over ham balls and bake in a preheated 350 degrees until firm.