Award-winning restaurants across the country find G&W Hamery’s Tennessee prosciutto simply irresistible

Friday, October 18, 2013, Vol. 37, No. 42
By Nicki Pendleton Wood

New Year’s Eve day at G&W Hamery in Murfreesboro is a busy, busy day, but probably in a very different way than anyone else’s New Year’s Eve day.

While other people are buying liquor and cooking black-eyed peas, Hamery owner Bob Woods is rounding up young people to unload 30,000 pounds of pork from a tractor trailer at his Lytle Street shop, which once housed his uncle’s veterinary clinic.

He will then salt the couple thousand hams and get them into the cooler, the first steps of many for hams so revered that they will eventually make their way to some of the nation’s best restaurants, including Rolf and Daughters (named this month by Esquire magazine as one of the nation’s “Best New Restaurants 2013”), Husk and Urban Grub in Nashville, as well as establishments in San Francisco (Hogs & Rocks), Los Angeles (craft), Atlanta (Southern Art and KR SteakBar) and Chicago (The Publican).

Cold weather is traditionally ham-making time, and Woods sticks with that, even though artificial refrigeration and air conditioning make it theoretically possible to cure hams any time of year. Why? Simple economics.

“Everyone is about hammed out by the end of the holidays,” Woods says, adding demand is low. Fresh hogs are cheaper on New Year’s Eve day than just about any other time.

You’ve tasted honey-baked ham, or a spiral sliced ham – that’s “city” ham. It’s cured by injecting it with a brine of spices, salt, sugar and curing agents.

A country ham is from another time and is a different thing altogether. The technique of salting a ham to drive out the moisture, then smoking the relatively dry meat was developed – who even knows when? Probably centuries ago, probably in Europe – as a way to preserve meat.

As with so many other things, it happens that our fair state has an ideal climate for curing country ham, says Woods, who grew up on Nashville’s west side and graduated Hillsboro High.

He’s been studying on it for quite some time, and figures the long, hot summers sweat the excess water efficiently, while our cold winters keep ham cool.

G&W Hamery owner Bob Woods carefully carves nearly transparent slices of his Tennshootoe from ham prepared and aged in his Murfreesboro shop.

-- Lyle Graves | Nashville Ledger

Any further south and the winters aren’t cold enough to slow bacterial growth and kill off insects. Any further north and the hams freeze in the winter. Hams were cured all over the country in the days before refrigeration. But they turned out best in Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia.

Ham is intuitive and inexpensive to produce. Pigs practically raise themselves, eating just about anything, and grow these amazing haunches with muscle and bone lines that practically shout, “Cut here. And here.” Curing a ham just involves salt, observation and time.

A Hamery ham starts out around 26 pounds. A lot of manual labor goes into transforming it from fresh pork to a Tennessee ham. Woods says each ham is rubbed with salt cure 3 times.

Each ham is slipped into stockinette, which is knotted and hung on a rack. Then each ham is moved several times. It’s hard to scale it up.

“I do have my physical limitations,” Woods says.

When they’ve hung a month to dry the surface, they’re smoked lightly off and on for a week to a light pecan color. The smoke acts as a natural insect repellent, adds a little flavor and prevents the fat from turning yellow and developing an off flavor.

The ham feels and looks different at different stages. The newer hams are easy to spot; they’re plump. They grow drier and slimmer, and by the time they’re done 10 months later, they’ve slimmed down. A finished Hamery ham has lost about a third of its weight. The flesh grows denser and the texture changes.

“A quick-cured ham is spongy, but mine sound like a 2x4 when you thump them,” Woods says. He uses an ice pick to probe a ham and smell it. Some great hams have a nice smell, some great hams have no scent, but no great hams have an unpleasant smell.

G&W Hamery

411 W. Lytle Street
Murfreesboro, TN

The Hamery, serving Artisan hams since 1968, was created by  Murfreesboro friends Col. Tom Givan and Dr. Sam Woods, and handed down to Bob Woods, the current owner.

Hours of operation:
(Subject to Seasonal Changes)
Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.
Saturday, Farmers Market, downtown on the square, Murfreesboro, 8 a.m.-Noon; store open from 12:30-3 p.m.

(For the science-minded, the reduced water content and the high salt content make water unavailable to pathogens. Which answers the mystery of why an uncut cured ham is safe at room temperature.)

They can hang around for up to a couple of years when ready. Hams sell briskly the last three months of the year.

Ham is mostly a special-occasion food now, but when the South was younger, ham was on the menu all year. And when the early Southerners weren’t eating ham, they were likely eating greens or beans seasoned with ham fat.

Woods says he once had an employee tell him she hadn’t eaten beef until she was a teenager.

“That’s how I knew she’d grown up poor.”

He had another worker whose family didn’t eat the hams they produced. They traded them for lard, which is more energy dense.

The price for a Hamery ham is about $80, very reasonable for an 18-pound beauty that yields around 11 to 12 pounds of usable meat, including seasoning pieces.

G&W makes ham into several other products with more labor and more mark-up. Back in the day, the only saw at The Hamery was a hand saw, since all the hams were sold whole.

Now more saws cut the meat into more types of ham offerings: boneless, by the slice, and on biscuits – a more “fixed up” ham product has a bit more markup.

It’s been a nice business for the Woods family and getting nicer. His ham production doubled in five years.