Are America's country hams on the verge of disappearing?

Nothing lasts forever. While that truism may be accurate, it does little to temper the disappointment that accompanies the loss of a food tradition. Maybe it's because I'm getting older, but every time I read or hear about a foodstuff that is going away I get a little teary-eyed. Even though I do not like Necco wafers, part of me was saddened when I learned that the company that had made them since the mid-1800s had shut down

The latest food that is teetering on the edge of extinction is the country ham. The heavily salted, long cured product has been referred to as "hillbilly prosciutto", and star chefs like Sean Brock showcase it in their restaurants. Various factors have contributed to the loss of many of the smokehouses that produce country hams, and now one of the most famous, Smithfield Foods, closed its smokehouse in the city of Smithfield, Virginia.

country ham

What is contributing to the decline in the number of smokehouses dedicated to this iconic American product? Part of the problem is that because the ham takes such a long time to cure, it's difficult to sell it at a profitable price point. Despite the reverence bestowed upon it by chefs like Brock, consumer demand has not been sufficient to attract new people to the trade. In fact, most of the people who produce country hams are at or near retirement age. 

However, some experts remain optimistic that we won't completely lose the product. They predict that, similar to the craft beer industry, home enthusiasts will carry the mantle and inspire a renaissance of the trade. The story of Necco wafers also provides hope, as The Spangler Candy Co. has purchased the rights to the candy and plans to resume production in 2019. If Necco wafers can get a reprieve, anything's possible.

Photo of Sweet tea-brined country ham from Garden and Gun Magazine

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