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The Lure and Lore of Corned Ham, a Salty Slice of North Carolina

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — When Bill Smith moved here in the late 1960s, he couldn’t find corned ham, a staple in New Bern, the coastal town where he grew up.

“This would not do,” said Mr. Smith, the longtime chef at Crook’s Corner and a pioneer in the modern revival of Southern cuisine.

His father came to the rescue. “My dad would send me hams on the bus from the Pak-A-Sak in New Bern,” he said, referring to a local grocery. “It would be under there with the luggage, in a beat-up cardboard box.”

Traditional corned ham is simply a fresh ham cured in salt. Unlike smoked and dry-cured Southern hams, it is rarely found outside two small pockets of the Eastern Seaboard: St. Mary’s County, Md., where it’s used primarily as the basis for stuffed hams, and eastern North Carolina, where hog farming has been a linchpin of the local economy for generations. It’s the one region where it’s still common to find people serving unembellished corned ham.

Some Carolina home cooks boil their hams and use the rich broth, known as potlikker, to braise collard greens. Slow-cooked in the oven, as Mr. Smith advises, the dish is an eye-popping, deeply seasoned pork roast you won’t soon forget.

“It’s just so perfect and succulent, which is hard for a ham,” said Vivian Howard, the chef and television personality who runs two restaurants in Kinston, near where she grew up.

A 40-minute drive from New Bern, Kinston is also, Ms. Howard pointed out, “corned ham country.” Her father made corned hams when she was growing up, and the Piggly Wiggly around the corner from her office still sells them during the winter holidays.

“The bulk of what we sell is on Thanksgiving and Christmas,” said Charles Rollins, the meat director for 38 Piggly Wiggly stores in eastern North Carolina, “but they’re not as popular as they were when I was young.” He said the coronavirus crisis is preventing his stores from carrying them again around Easter, as they normally do.

Mr. Smith, who is 71 and was once described by the local alternative newspaper Indy Week as “arguably our state’s most beloved chef,” has made reversing that trend a pet cause. He believes the dish is too delicious to consume only on the holidays, much less to let disappear.

“This is the best ham in the world,” he wrote in his 2005 cookbook, “Seasoned in the South.” The book’s corned ham recipe is based on lessons he received from Gwen Lassiter, who made them for Pak-A-Sak.

“It used to be that you could just go to the store and buy them anytime you wanted one,” Mr. Smith said. “When that went away, my father said I had to learn to make them myself. And Gwen is who made them for him.”

The lessons helped create an ambassador. If you Google “corned ham,” many of the top results will be articles by or about Mr. Smith. One is an essay the chef wrote for Southern Cultures, a quarterly magazine, that includes an artist’s depiction of him as a ham, holding a can of his favorite beverage, Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Mickey Hudson, an owner of Morty Pride Meats, in Fayetteville, said his family’s company didn’t make corned hams when his father founded the business in 1970. They started to roughly 25 years ago, when there was a resurgence in demand for the hams. “People started wanting them again, for some reason,” he said.

Ms. Howard said her father, like many people in the region, would make one corned ham and one smoked ham every fall as a way to preserve part of a slaughtered hog.

She didn’t give corned ham much thought after she became a chef. Then, in 2012, she went to a party at the home of Ashley Christensen, a well-known chef in Raleigh. Mr. Smith had brought one of his hams, which was particularly memorable for its crisped, brown cap of fat.

“I remember when he came in, everyone was like, ‘Hey, Bill’s got the ham!’” Ms. Howard recalled. “And then everyone tapped the skin.”

The ham quickly disappeared, as is typical at large gatherings, Mr. Smith said. “If you’re near it, you just can’t let it alone.” (Ms. Howard later invited him to help recreate the ritual of slaughtering and breaking down a hog, then corning a ham, in an episode of her PBS show “A Chef’s Life.”)

For home cooks, particularly those who have stocked up for a self-quarantine, the most challenging part of making a corned ham is clearing space in your refrigerator to fit a 15- to 20-pound ham for 10 days. (You can also mail-order a corned ham from Morty Pride.)

The best argument for making the effort is the finished ham. The savory meat keeps for at least two weeks, and the leftovers are versatile: salty enough to flavor beans and cooked greens, but also looser-grained and more tender than other hams, making the meat suitable for tacos, jambalaya and pulled-pork sandwiches.

“It makes wonderful ham salad,” Mr. Smith said.

One morning in February, Mr. Smith was preparing a corned ham to bake in the kitchen at Crook’s Corner for a dinner he was hosting at the restaurant that evening.

He wore a version of the outfit — faded bluejeans, T-shirt and a baseball hat with a Human Rights Campaign logo on it — that he wore to work every day for three decades before retiring last year.

“It’s the easiest thing in the world to make,” he said of the ham. He pointed to incisions he’d cut along the hip and shank bones 10 days earlier. “You ram salt as far as you can push into those. And then you pour salt all over it — it doesn’t have to be thick, but it does have to be all over.”

Image

Credit…Justin Cook for The New York Times
Image

Credit…Justin Cook for The New York Times

He put the ham, which had soaked in water overnight, on a low rack over a half-inch of water in a large roasting pan. He pressed parchment paper over the meat, sealed the pan with tin foil, and put it in a 325-degree oven.

He cooked the 23-pound ham for 20 to 25 minutes per pound — “you want it falling off the bone,” Mr. Smith said — until 90 minutes before it was finished, when its internal temperature neared 150 degrees. At that point, he removed the foil and parchment, turned the oven temperature up to 375 and returned the ham to the oven. The increased heat turned the top layer of fat into something like pork cracklings.

“Everyone wants a piece of that,” said Andrew Ullom, the chef and co-owner of Union Special Bread, a bakery and cafe in Raleigh.

Mr. Ullom, who is from Ohio, learned how to cook corned ham from Mr. Smith. “The flavor of it to me is much more reminiscent of the pulled pork eastern North Carolina is known for,” he said.

He is among the North Carolina chefs who, inspired by Mr. Smith, are making corned ham into something it rarely was before: a restaurant dish. At Union Special Bread, corned ham is served over grits with red-eye gravy (made with reduced coffee and ham drippings) as a monthly brunch special. Lucky diners get a piece of crunchy skin with their order.

“Tomorrow we’re going to have hot corned ham burritos with potlikker barbecue sauce,” Mr. Ullom said. (Union Special Bread is open only for takeout because of the coronavirus.)

Matt Fern, who, like Mr. Ullom, is a former longtime employee of Ms. Christensen, plans to serve a corned ham Reuben with braised cabbage and chowchow at the deli he is hoping to open in Raleigh next spring, on the property of the new Longleaf Hotel.

“I still remember the first bite of corned ham I ever had,” Mr. Fern said. It was at the same party attended by Ms. Howard. “The rule for that party was, ‘When Bill shows up, follow him and eat whatever he brings.’ ”

While Mr. Smith is no longer cooking at Crook’s Corner, he remains a nurturing presence in the Research Triangle’s restaurant community, as well as a public figure. “The last year, I’ve been so busy, traveling, cooking for benefits and events,” he said. “My calendar is horrifying.”

Mr. Smith is vocally progressive and politically active. He was arrested at a Moral Monday protest organized by the Rev. William J. Barber II, a North Carolina minister and activist, in response to an array of conservative state legislation in 2013. And he remains close with Crook’s mostly Mexican-American kitchen staff.

“What kept me going all those years, frankly, was all these delightful people I was working with,” he said. “Because you know, in a restaurant, you might as well be in a coal mine. It’s relentless — 80-hour weeks.”

Mr. Smith has been self-isolating in his Chapel Hill house in response to the coronavirus, riding his bicycle when he gets the chance. He is worried about his unemployed friends in the hospitality business.

“No one has any money,” he said. Crook’s Corner is closed because of the health crisis.

Although the restaurant is synonymous with Mr. Smith, he was never an owner. It was opened in 1982 by Gene Hamer and Bill Neal, a chef revered for marrying traditional Southern recipes and French technique. Mr. Smith got his start as a chef working for Mr. Neal, and became head chef in 1991, when Mr. Neal died of AIDS.

Mr. Smith was regarded by some as an interloper. “It took a good while for people to accept me,” he said.

Before he began cooking, he recalls, he was “a very good hippie” and a founder of Cat’s Cradle, an influential local music club that celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. His collection of rock-tour shirts, many of them sauce-stained, can be found in the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina.

“I was never a chef’s-whites guy,” he said.

Over the years, Mr. Smith created new standards at Crook’s Corner, like fried oysters with garlic mayonnaise and honeysuckle sorbet. He is asked to make Atlantic Beach Pie, a lemon pie with a saltine crust, so often that he refers to it as “that stupid pie.”

Corned ham was never a regular menu item at Crook’s. “We’d do it as a special a few times a year, usually on a Saturday, when we knew there would be enough people to eat it up,” he said. “It had a following.”

Mr. Smith shared his corned ham recipe with Justin Burdett, the chef who replaced him when new owners took over the restaurant from Gene Hamer, its previous proprietor. Built inside a former fish market, the restaurant has not visibly changed under its new owners, Gary Crunkleton and Shannon Healy, both of whom own local bars. It’s still a casual bistro with a tile-lined bar, and the work of local artists hangs on the walls.

Mr. Smith quickly took to Mr. Burdett, a 37-year-old Georgia native with skull tattoos on both sides of his head. “I was so afraid someone was going to come prancing in in a toque,” Mr. Smith said. “Justin is so not that.”

Image

Credit…Justin Cook for The New York Times
Image

Credit…Justin Cook for The New York Times

After cooking his ham, Mr. Smith changed into a collared shirt for dinner and rolled up his sleeves to carve the ham. Seven friends passed around serving bowls of grits and collard greens at a long table in the Crook’s Corner dining room.

“The best way to eat corned ham is to pick off the top of it, right when it comes out of the oven, before you tell anyone it’s ready,” said Sheri Castle, a local food writer and one of the guests. She tested the recipes for Mr. Smith’s book.

Ms. Castle pointed out the ham’s similarities to turkey. “You have dark meat and white meat, juicy parts and less juicy parts.”

“It’s the perfect eastern North Carolina supper,” said Mr. Smith, who made a “stupid pie” for dessert.

After dinner, Mr. Smith put on his baseball hat and walked over to Cat’s Cradle, as he did after dinner shifts for decades. Archers of Loaf, his favorite local band, was playing. He seemed to run into a friend or a fan every few minutes.

Scott Smith, the owner of a local bike shop (and no relation), embraced Mr. Smith, and excitedly introduced him to his friends.

“It’s Bill Smith!” he said. “He makes corned ham.”

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