Comfort Foods: Smithfield ham is a signifier of the holidays and Southern roots

Life staff writer Eliza DuBose’s dad only brings his Southern cooking around during the holiday season

Comfort Foods is a Life section series highlighting AU students and the food that reminds them of home and heritage.

On any normal day of the year, it’s rather hard to tell that my father is from the South. His Southern charm is mostly obscured by the gruff habits required of someone who has been living in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado since 1996.

His cowboy hat, boots and habitually full beard are definitely more “Western ranch” than the gentlemanly habits of the country clubs he grew up around. He wears earrings with thick pearls wedged in the eight-gauge stainless steel hoops and a stud nose piercing. A thick pendant hangs around his neck — usually Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir, based on an ancient design, so think original Norse myths, not Chris Hemsworth. Generally, even I wouldn’t peg my dad as born and raised in Georgia. However, there’s one small exception: his cooking. 

The holidays in particular bring out my dad's Southern roots. Every year, an entire Smithfield ham hock makes its way from Virginia to our rural town’s post office. That’s when I know that the holidays have officially begun.

Turkey is usually the centerpiece of most families’ Thanksgiving dinners, but the salted ham has always been the center of ours. The product is hand-salted and dry-cured before it is smoked over hardwood and seasoned with black pepper. 

My dad likes to say a Smithfield ham is like a Bordeaux wine, which can only come from Bordeaux, France. To be a Smithfield Ham it must be cured in Smithfield, Virginia. The name is inseparable from the product.

A salted Smithfield ham teeters gloriously on incredibly salty. To curb the flavor, the ham slices are cut extraordinarily thin like prosciutto.

One of my first memories of the holiday season is standing in the kitchen, shoulder to shoulder with my sister, giggling as my dad protested our small, eager hands stealing the thin slices of ham as fast as he could slice them.

We’ll eat off of the 12-pound ham leg for breakfast or as a sandwich all the way to the New Year. What is left over is cut into small portions, vacuum-sealed and frozen, and will be used to make more Southern fair throughout the year like collard greens and black-eyed peas.  

My father always said that black-eyed peas cooked with salted ham should be your first meal in the New Year because it brings good luck. I wouldn’t say I’m a superstitious person, but every year we eat black-eyed peas and salted ham, hoping to bring a little bit of luck into the new year.

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