Hamming it Up South of the James


Virginias James River pours into the Chesapeake Bay as it meets the Atlantic Ocean.  Before exiting, the James forms Hampton Roads, one of the worlds great natural harbors, surrounded by the growing cities of Newport News, Hampton, Norfolk, Suffolk and Portsmouth.  The seaport and burgeoning urban center not withstanding, gourmands know that superb dining opportunities — including the world famous Smithfield hams line the shoreline south of the James.

Few things can be sweeter than a lazy day spent in Portsmouth.  Let the sun wake you up in time for a brisk walk along the Craford Bay or Elizabeth River waterfront.  Then, over to Bruttis Restaurant in Olde Towne for a half-dozen of their BagelNUTZ — bagel dough wrapped around various fillings.  After breakfast, prowl the shops along High Street, looking for antiques, furniture, and gift items.  Lunch can be in one of the many pubs and restaurants, or drive out to Rodmans Bones and Buddys for a square dog, a regional favorite made from a hotdog cut square on a hamburger roll with Smithfield ham, lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise. 

Spend the afternoon on the water, either exploring Portsmouths busy harbor, cruising the local waterways, or fishing on the nearby rivers.  Portsmouths waterfront is crowded with marine traffic and resonant with the metal sounds of shipbuilding and repair.  Visitors can cruise the harbor and see nuclear super carriers, ocean going cargo ships, and the site of the Battle of the Ironclads.  Portsmouth also hosts the Childrens Museum of Virginia, one of the most enjoyable learning experiences for younger kids, with interactive exhibits that explain various scientific principles or just cause massive giggles.

Moving Upriver
Just a half-hour upriver from downtown Portsmouth, Smithfield sits where the Pagan River enters the James.  In 1779, Captain Mallory Todd, of Smithfield, shipped a quantity of cured hams to Elliston and John Perot on the Caribbean island of St. Eustatius.  In return, Capt. Mallory received, among other items, a two-pound cannon and a hat.  This transaction marked the first known commercial sale of the now-legendary Smithfield hams.

Connoisseurs recognize the Smithfield ham as one of the worlds great delicacies.  On a par with Spains Serannos and Italys Parmas and Prosciuttos, a genuine Smithfield has a distinctive dark pink color and pungent flavor — robust, salty, and rich with hardwood smoke. 

A Smithfield ham is very much a product of American history and environment.  As early as 1609, the Jamestown colonists were raising hogs for food.  A hog could be turned loose in the woods to forage for itself, unlike a cow that needed particular food and was not nearly as hardy.  Hogs flourished on oak and beech mast and were grazed in peanut fields after the harvest to fatten up on any remaining nuts.  The Native Americans showed the European settlers methods for using salt and wood smoke to cure the meat for storage.

Smithfield by Law
Though Mallory Todds original smokehouse on the banks of the Pagan River has grown into todays giant Smithfield Foods, and curing hams is no longer a strictly seasonal activity, the basic product has remained nearly constant.  In 1926, the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia enacted a law stipulating that a genuine Smithfield ham must be made from a peanut-fed razorback hog, raised in the peanut belt of Virginia or North Carolina and cured within the town limits of Smithfield.  Since that time, the town limits have had to expand a time or two, and in 1968, a Senate bill was passed stating that the hogs no longer had to be raised in the peanut belt.  But, to carry the proud title Genuine Smithfield, the ham still must be made within the towns limits, following the traditional process.

Gwaltney, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, is the largest company currently producing genuine Smithfield hams.  After the hogs are slaughtered and the meat chilled for 24 hours, the hams are removed.  Each ham initially weighs around 17 to 20 pounds; long cuts have a piece of the pork loin attached, adding another three to four pounds.  The hams are rolled in pure sea salt, free of any impurities or heavy metals that may be present in regular table salt, and allowed to sit for seven days.  At that point, the salt is brushed and rinsed off, and the ham is resalted.  The double salting process draws moisture from the meat, partially dehydrating the ham.  

The second salting lasts for 21 days.  Then the salt is removed, and the meat is coated with a curing solution and hung. This equalization process goes for about 40 days, allowing air to flow past the curing hams. The hams receive another six to eight months of air drying and two weeks of smoking using real hickory wood.  According to a 1961 law, hams must be cured for a minimum of 180 days.  Genuine Smithfield does not actually need to be cooked and can keep indefinitely.  In fact, a ham currently in the Isle of Wight Museum, once the pet ham of P.D. Gwaltney, Jr., was originally cured in 1902.

Gwaltney may be the largest, but it isnt the only ham in town.  DeeDee Dardens family cures about 900 hams each year, using a smokehouse built in 1952, and selling the succulent meat at Dardens Country Store.  The Dardens use traditional methods, using the long cut, like people did on the farms, said Ms. Darden.  Our hams are less salty tasting.  Its a labor of love, not mass produced.  We handle each ham ourselves.

A Traditional Town
The town of Smithfield has made a conscious effort to retain its traditional, small town serenity and charm.  The nine-square-block registered historic district has more than two dozen shops and specialty stores including nearly a dozen antique shops.  Many of the houses particularly a squadron of Victorian painted ladies– reflect Smithfields prosperous past.

The Smithfield Inn is one of the towns older structures, initially built in 1752, the year of the towns founding.  The dcor and furnishings are lush and luxurious with Victorian Southern accents, gracious amenities, fresh flowers, and upholstered walls above the wainscoting in the guest rooms.  The inn offers sumptuous meals as well as lodging, and has a reputation as the home of the ham biscuit, a now world-famous gustatory delight that combines a fluffy buttermilk biscuit with a thin slice of smoky country ham.

Smithfield Inn ham biscuits were chosen as Virginias representative in the USA Todays 50 Plates of America.  The biscuit is a yeast roll, light with a papery crust that collapses in the mouth.  The contrast between the salty ham against the slightly sweet biscuit is terrific.  The combination leaves a slightly greasy feeling on the lips and a pleasant smoky flavor on the palate.

Smithfield ham, the town, and the Inns ham biscuits were catapulted into the international spotlight when the town celebrated it 250th birthday by baking the worlds largest ham biscuit.  Using a specially designed and constructed oven, a crew of nearly a dozen people used over 1,000 pounds of flour and 500 pounds of sliced ham to create the buttermilk biscuit.  The delicacy spent over 14 hours in a 300-degree oven, and Chef Michael Toepper and his crew needed a forklift to shift it.  Ultimately, the biscuit was 14 inches thick, eight feet in diameter, and weighed in at 2,200 pounds.  The whole event made CNN News, seen around the world.

Along the Waterfront
Smithfield Station offers a more contemporary atmosphere in a delightful waterfront setting.  Many of the 20 rooms actually sit over the water, and a boardwalk connects the rooms to the main building and a scale replica of the Hooper Island Lighthouse, a Chesapeake Bay icon.  The two lighthouse suites fea
ture fireplaces, welcome baskets, and a range of amenities.  For boaters, Smithfield Station maintains floating docks with power and water hookups and a convenient bath house and swimming pool.  They can moor boats up to 70 feet long with a seven foot draft. 

Smithfield Stations dining room specializes in seafood and ham dishes.  The candlelit ambiance, enhanced by cedar paneling, offers a panoramic river view from every table.  On weekends, the restaurant features breads baked by the legendary Katherine Rowland.  Lovingly described by Smithfield Stations owner Randy Pack as a little old lady out in the country, Ms. Rowland has been baking for Smithfield Station for more than 20 years and recently produced her one-millionth loaf.

Hams and baked goods are not the only delights found south of the James.  No trip along the river would be complete without a passage on the Jamestown Scotland Ferry. In business for more than 80 years, the four-boat fleet carries almost a million vehicles and more than 2 million passengers each year on the 15-minute transit.  Typical of the larger, contemporary center island ferries, the 263-foot Pocahontas sports a narrow observation deck and a bridge deck topping a narrow structure rising from the middle of the lower car deck. The vista from high above takes in the bluffs lining the south shore, the rivers three-mile wide expanse and the low-lying Jamestown peninsula.  When riding the free ferry, its not hard to imagine what the first English colonists saw as they traveled on the same river 400 years ago.

Reed Hellman is a writer living in Alberton, Maryland.  E-mail your questions and comments to RHWay2Go@yahoo.com.