Uncle Billy’s Salt-Cured Hams

Uncle Billy cured ham unlike anyone else, and you can learn how to make salt-cured ham like Uncle Billy.

| December 1991/January 1992

  • Uncle Billy's Homemade Salt-Cured Ham
    Uncle Billy shows off one of his famous salt-cured hams.
  • Uncle Billy's Smokehouse
    Three wooden tiers ring the smokehosue rafters. The top tier is for new meat.
  • Uncle Billy's Slicer
    Uncle Billy uses this vintage sliver that "slices meat so thin you can read through it."
  • Salt Tables
    Uncle Billy's salt table.

  • Uncle Billy's Homemade Salt-Cured Ham
  • Uncle Billy's Smokehouse
  • Uncle Billy's Slicer
  • Salt Tables

My first memory of Uncle Bill Long's ham goes back to a Christmas dinner long ago. I was a shirttail boy of eight, and my family had been invited to Uncle Billy's big white farmhouse near Garysburg, N.C. There, among 30 or 40 relatives, we lined up (children first) to cruise the sideboard, plates in hand and help ourselves to my aunt's Southern cooking. I remember squash casserole, candied yams, butterbeans and snaps, and collards boiled hard and long into a wonderful deep green mush. There was turkey with oyster dressing and cranberry salad, rice and gravy, and hot rolls for dipping and shoving. The desserts were nearby: plum pudding and fruitcake, ambrosia and pecan pie, and, of course, my Aunt June's legendary caramel cake, which had faithful fans in three countries.

Reigning over the sideboard like King Solomon on his throne was a ham cured by Uncle Billy. Deep red on the inside, covered with cloves and a mahogany glaze of molasses and brown sugar on the outside, its aroma filled the dining room. I remember nearly transparent slices, rimmed with thin strips of fat, on a white dinner plate. With my mouth watering and my eyes already feasting, my ears turned deaf to my mother's warnings not to eat too much because “it would give us children bad dreams.” (After one Christmas ham-eating binge, legend has it that my cousin Henry awoke among ripped sheets and tossed blankets.) This was strong stuff, I was told — an acquired, grown-up taste, like okra or good bourbon.

I ate too much anyway. I still remember taking small forkfuls of the ham (a taste that can only be described now as dark, hard, mysterious, and smacking of salt, smoke and spices), carefully lacing it between bits of soft rolls, and then dousing the whole thing with red-eye gravy. A native of ham country (smoked hams from places like Gwaltney and Smithfield have made the area famous), I feel justified to state unequivocally and with all prejudices firmly in place — that my Uncle Billy makes the best country ham in the world. A modest man of 64 and a churchgoer, he would scoff at such praise — but he wouldn't deny it. He learned it from his mother, Caroline, when he was a boy, and he's been doing it steadily, almost as a revival, for the last 15 years. And like all things he cherishes from a simpler time (including his Model A pickup or his 1935 meat slicer), Uncle Billy's happy to tell you all about it — just as long as you're happy to listen.

When I went to visit him early this fall, the farm was bustling with activity. Cousin Duna's wedding was set for the following weekend, and the whole family of six girls, several husbands, and numerous grandchildren were working in the yard getting ready for it. I found Uncle Billy behind the house wiring lights to one of the half-dozen outbuildings scattered around the place.

The Secret of Uncle Billy’s Homemade Ham

“So you want to know about hams,” he said, in all seriousness. “Well, I tell you. The key to keeping good hams…is to keep your smokehouse locked.” He leads the way down a path in the yard, shooing tame ducks from underfoot, to where two small buildings back up to a soybean field. He tells me about how, every January when he was a boy, they'd kill 30 to 40 hogs fattened on corn and peanuts to feed the family and the farmhands. It was the social event of the season, and all the people who worked and lived on the farm turned out to help. The men did the butchering, the women took care of the organs and scraps to make chitlins and sausage, and the children tried not to get in the way. Nothing was wasted or thrown away, not even the hair, which was saved for stuffing mattresses or making plaster. “We used to say you used everything but the squeal,” laughs Uncle Billy. These days, however, he buys fresh “green” hams from a local slaughterhouse.

In the Salt House: Salt Curing and Preserving Ham

We stop in front of the salt house, a cinderblock building with plaster walls and tables to one side. The door is heavy, thick and insulated. As with so much else on a farm, says Uncle Billy, the first thing you need for successful ham-curing is the right weather — a cold snap in January with temperatures in the high 20s to low 30s at night. He brings the green hams into the salt house and lays them on the table. Meat cools just like it cooks, from the outside in, he says, and the meat has to drop to about 40 degrees Fahrenheit next to the bone, a process that usually takes overnight. When it's cold, he explains, the fat stays solid. The next morning he pours a layer of salt on the table and begins to cover the meat with it, rubbing it in, moving the joints, adding more salt until it “starts feelin' stiff.” For his annual 24 hams, he buys 50 to 100 pounds of salt.

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