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The salty, smoky, dry-cured hams of Smithfield, Virginia

Stretching nearly a city block in this pretty little, sleepy, Southern town, the Smithfield ham smokehouse, down by the river, holds 90,000 hams whose salty meat is dry-cured, smoked, and being properly aged.

There are probably 75,0000 Smithfield and 15,000 country hams hanging from the rafters here right now, the plant manager of Smithfield Packing Company said.

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The fragrance teases your appetite; the dark, wooden beams and walls of the smokehouse indicate this Smithfield ham process is no pig in a poke.

It's serious business for the Smithfield Packing Company, started by the Luter family in 1936; for Gwaltney of Smithfield, a subsidiary of the International Telephone & Telegraph Corporation; for the V. W. Joyner Company, a subsidiary of Swift & Co.; and the Smithfield Ham & Products Company.

These four are the only packing companies that cure hams in the famous old Smithfield process and the only ones allowed to used the word Smithfield to describe this local specialty. I had never, of course, seen so many hams before. The precious load of strong-flavored Virginia hams is suspended over the smoke room, where a large steel drum filled with hardwood smuged with hickory sawdust creates clouds of smoke nightly, then semiweekly, then finally weekly to produce the proper flavor during the six months hams must be aged in order to bear the Smithfield name.

Some people are unaware that there are two kinds of Virginia hams -- the Smithfield ham and country ham. The Smithfield is smoked longer and has a stronger flavor than the country ham.

The Smithfield is known as the long cut. By state law only curers in the town of Smithfield (a town about 2 1/2 square miles in size) may call their long-cut products Smithfield hams. Law specifies aging of at least six months.

A country ham is a short cut and is cured similarly but aged for a shorter time, usually around 70 days.

Carl Irvine, the meat manager at Smithfield Packing, showed us where the fresh hams are brought in and placed on a huge wooden salt tray, then rubbed by hand in piles of coarse salt.

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Thousand of hams are piled on top of each other and literally buried in huge mounds of salt, which is absorbed by the meat. This is what is known as the dry cure. The process is repeated with another burial in the salt, for 35 to 40 days.

When the salt is finally washed off, the hams are coated and rubbed with cracked pepper before being hung for 15 days for the salt to "equalize."

Then comes the smoking. Hung from the wooden rafters for what is called the six-month cure, they undergo intermittent smoking and hanging until the hams are a dark brown.

"It's the aging, the last step in both old and modern curing, that makes the difference in the two cuts and the difference in flavor," Mr. Irvine said.

If you get a Smithfield ham for a holiday gift, there are a few things you should notice that are different. First, it will probably be 15 to 25 pounds in weight, and it may be cooked or uncooked.

And don't be surprised if it has a gray mold color on the outside. That's normal for an uncooked Virginia ham. It's a sign of a well-cured ham. There are many tales of innocent ham recipients throwing away their gift because they thought the mold meant something was wrong.

Also be sure to remember that Virginia hams should be boiled, not baked, although they can be bake-glazed after boiling.

Natives say that to served properly, Virginia ham must be sliced very thin.

The Junior Women's Club was hostess to the group of food writers I was with touring the plant, and it took us on a walking tour of the town and also arranged a luncheon for us at the Smithfield Inn, built in 1752 as a stop on the stage route from Norfolk to Richmond.

The luncheon was beatifully prepared and served and included some typical recipes of the area. There was Southern Fried Chicken, prepared from a "receipt" of Margaret Reese Tynes, and fried cornbread cakes, a specialty of Clara Ford Williams, who has presided over the inn's kitchens for more than 28 years.

Margaret Reese Tynes is one of the town's best-known people. For more than 20 years she has been a mainstay of the Smithfield Inn, where she has extended hospitality to visitors all over the world.

Before serving the chicken we were treated to very thin slices of Smithfield ham served with beaten biscuits. And with the chicken we had stewed tomatoes seasoned in the Smithfield way. Here are the recipes: Margaret's Fried Chicken

Cut frying-size chicken into pieces. Wash, dry, and rub with salt. Lightly dredge in flour and drop into very hot lard or vegetable oil. Fat should be deep enough to half cover chicken.

Cover pan and cook until golden. Turn chicken and continue to cook until brown on both sides. Turn again if necessary. Leave cover on and cook until crisp. Smithfield Inn Stewed Tomatoes 1 pint canned tomatoes 2 day-old biscuits 1/4 cup or less (about 1 teaspoon) sugar 1/2 teaspoon vanilla 1/2 teaspoon lemon extract 1 teaspoon flour 1 teaspoon butter

Combine ingredients. Pout into greased casserole and bake at 350 degrees F. 30 to 40 minutes. Clara's Cornbread Cakes 1 1/2 cups cornmeal 1 tablespoon flour 1 teaspoon, or slightly more, sugar 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder 1/2 teaspoon salt 12 eggs, beaten 1 1/2 cups buttermilk

Combine all ingredients. Drop by large spoonfuls in shallow hot fat. Fry until brown on both sides.

A town of less than 5,000, Smithfield has no airport, railroad, or shipping line, is not on a major highway, and is islated because of the water that surrounds it.

Most of the Smithfield residents work at the shipyard or the meat plants. There is oystering on the Chesepeake and shad fishing in the spring.

Yet this little town is known around the world, for its ham and pork production is still the cornerstone of its economy and an integral part of life.

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