It’s interesting to me that while Delaware has the distinction of being the first state, Virginia is the home of the first US colony–Jamestown, founded in 1607. Jamestown was, in fact, the first English settlement in the Americas. Despite this early start, it wasn’t until June of 1788 that Virginia entered the Union as the tenth of the original 13 colonies–about 6 months after Delaware ratified the new US Constitution.
Topographically, Virginia is fairly diverse. Virginia Beach and Newport News sit on the state’s eastern border with the Atlantic Ocean while the Appalachian chain defines the western boundary. The entire state lies south of the Mason-Dixon line, and in many ways it is this arbitrary border that defines its character.
The food traditions of Virginia include seafood such as clams and crabs along the coast, and some classic Appalachian foods like fried apple pies (or hand pies, depending who you ask) and dandelion greens to the west. But mostly, Virginia is known for its ham, with the true classic being the Smithfield.
It is important to note here that Smithfield denotes a town in Virginia, rather than the Smithfield conglomerate which has its largest facility in North Carolina rather than Virginia. Believe it or not, if the subject is Smithfield ham, the location matters as much as the process.
A true Smithfield ham is considered a delicacy. Dry-cured without sugar and traditionally smoked over hickory and/or applewood, it can be aged up to a year before sale. Similar to the Smithfield, and more readily available in other parts of the US is its cousin country ham. Country ham tends to have a milder cure (less salt), and a shorter aging time making it a milder product overall.
Can I just interrupt myself here to say that reading about the Smithfield process is the thing that led me to the decision to build a smokehouse in my back yard?
Anyway. True Smithfield hams can only come from Smithfield, Virginia (and not Tar Heel, North Carolina no matter what the Smithfield corporation tells us). Also interesting is that originally, in order to be considered a Smithfield ham the meat not only had to be processed in Smithfield, but the hog had to have been feed an exclusively peanut diet. That peanut thing has changed over time as humans have found other things to do with peanuts, leading to higher prices that make it difficult if not impossible to use them exclusively as feed. But I can’t help wondering how it would impact the flavor of the ham.
So ham, obviously, is on our menu. Inspiration for the second Virginia dish comes from Colonial Williamsburg Historic Foodways. The site offers an intriguing look at the food traditions of the early, wealthy colonists. In contrast to fried pies, collard greens, and ham, the wealthy table included chicken pudding, syllabub, and other rich dishes that the early colonists brought from England.
In honor of these diverse traditions we’re going to make two very different dishes. The first is Forced Asparagus in French rolls–a classically wealthy, and English (by way of the Romans, who took asparagus everywhere because they adored it), dish. The second is ham biscuits–food for the rest of us. And I’ll confess right now that this is the one place where I’ve broken my own rules and ordered a true Smithfield ham because I just can’t find anything like it in my part of New York.