Friday, February 24, 2012

The systematic, traditional-style disassembly of an Appalachian-style salt-cured country ham [PHOTO ESSAY].

This is a salt-cured country ham.
It has been preserved in a commercial Appalachian-style process.

Such a ham is perhaps an acquired taste, but is richly flavorful nonetheless, and much beloved by many people.  
Here you see the reverse view of the same ham.
Shown here is the outside of the hog's leg, showing the larger portion of skin on it

The first order of business is to remove the skin from the ham.

Always cut safely: the blade should never be placed with the edge or the point toward the user. Slice away from yourself, and make sure your fingers are nowhere near the cutting edges or point of the blade.

The next step is to cut away the naturally occurring mold on the outside surfaces of the ham.
These fungi are harmless, and do not indicate that the ham is ruined;

to the contrary, a fully processed ham always shows signs of mold on it.

Also to be removed are layers of the outer fat, turned dark with age and the natural preservatives.
Here you see the ham, skin removed, outer layers of fat cleaned away.
In this age of concern for heart-health, we now remove all visible fat. My grandparents sliced this along with the lean meat, and fried the meat until it was crisp around the edges. This is tasty in the extreme, but not medically advisable, or so I'm told.

We do not, however, discard the fat, which is fried crisp and added to cornbread in some form (fried or baked) as 'cracklin's'.

(Cracklin' bread is another Appalachian food which has been very nearly forgotten.)

Standing the ham up on its straighter edge, use the pressure of your thumb to locate the stifle joint (the joint which folds to point forward as the hog takes a step).

Once you've located the center of that joint, use a sharp blade of sufficient size to slice down and through the joint capsule, severing it.

This is what it should look like once the first, main cut is made.

The next cut is made by standing the ham on its top, so the long bone is pointing upward.
Along the side of the bone nearest the first cut made, slice downward to that original cut.
The result of the second cut is shown above.

This is the section, cut so, from which the most attractive slices are eventually produced.

These are the lovely slices from the first section removed.
These are the slices one usually sees when dining in a good restaurant.
After the first section is removed, we proceed to slice again along the long bone of the hog's shank, to the side of the original long cut. This produces a somewhat triangular section that will be repeated in mirror image on the other side of the bone.
This image was provided mostly to illustrate the kind of knives best to use on such a job.

In the upper left of the image here, the remaining section of meat along the long shank bone is to be seen, sliced and ready to remove from along the bone. 

Other cuts are shown for comparison.

Here is an small heap of triangular 'biscuit pieces';
these were sliced from the second and third sections removed from the ham.

Seen here are an assortment of the sliced ham, ready to be fried or used to season other foods.

One of the last jobs to be done includes removal of the pelvic section
from the longer bones of the leg.

It's best to use a sturdy knife, a sharp one such as this chef's knife,

and as always,  it's very important to remember the safety rules
of handling knives throughout the entire job.

Almost nothing is wasted; less than a pound of discard material is removed from a ham of approximately sixteen pounds total.

Shown here is the shank and pelvic section of the ham, which will be used to cook with green beans, soup beans (brown or white) or similar, or with potatoes. (Of course, the traditional cornbread will accompany those dishes.)

Some meat has been deliberately left on the bones to provide a very solid and real supplement to the meal.

In the years of my childhood, the family used butcher paper to wrap the meat from the family's much-appreciated hogs. (I was put to work even as a small child, in labeling the packages.) In this age of plastics, the one good advantage is that the product is readily visible through the wrappings, whether frozen or refrigerated.

Here we have a view of the completed job, ready to store for later use.

          In the mountains of Appalachia, every possible resource was used. In some places, the people still remember living through The Great Depression partly on half-wild hog meat; they let the animals run wild in the forests to fatten on what they could find. The rich acorn harvest among the many varieties of oak trees in the region provided mast for adaptable, highly defensive pigs, omnivores with an attitude. Hogs were respected and never taken lightly among the hill and mountain folk, who knew that survival was a mutual, uneasy undertaking for both human and beast.

             Now what we need is a good hot batch of buttermilk biscuits, some sawmill gravy and a little red-eye gravy, a good amount of stout fine coffee, and a few fried eggs. Enjoy!