Few things are more fabled in the American meat industry than the venerable country ham. Produced
on most Southern farms long before refrigeration…indeed, long before there was a United States…the country ham industry traces its roots from the founding of Jamestown, Va.
Throughout most of the South, there was only one way to cure a ham: rub it in salt, let it age properly to preserve it and it could be eaten year round.
However, with the advent of refrigeration came changes. Hams could be quickly cured and served anytime. That technology change nearly spelled the extinction of the countryham industry. Even today, there are probably no more than two-dozen commercial country-ham producers.
But the old-fashioned way of putting up hams preserves something that modern methodology cannot touch. It is the unique salty and rich taste of aged ham. The country- ham industry verged on extinction. Then, something quite striking occurred, comparable to the resurgence of the bald eagle.
Perhaps nowhere can this regeneration be more readily understood than by taking a snapshot of events in the Western Tennessee cotton town of Brownsville, the home of Tripp Country Hams.
Charlie Tripp, Jr. and his wife, Judy, bought out a small country-ham operation started by his father, a circuit-riding minister who founded the firm in 1962 as a hobby. Charlie and his two younger brothers worked in the plant after school.
The plant itself was a 1930’s meat-locker facility built by the founders’ father and country hams were hand-rubbed, laid in salt bins and, when ready, sold as whole hams.
Not much changed until 1982, when Charlie Jr. and his wife took over. He had an accounting degree from the Univ. of Tennessee in Knoxville, but saw some opportunities in his father’s former hobby shop.
“Probably the first thing we realized was that the family size of our customers had gotten smaller and that, except during holidays, people didn’t want to buy the entire ham,” he recalls. “We began selling slices for a meal. Then we moved to sandwich-size slices and later into biscuit-size slices and things began taking off. These smaller portions were vacuum-packaged and people liked the convenience. Nearly every convenience store in the region began selling country ham biscuits.
“Things took off and we had to expand,” he adds. “We were in one of five old buildings near the railroad depot that my grandfather had built and we began a process of redoing one at a time and making our plant larger to keep up with growing demand and still satisfying USDA for inspection requirements.”
The family curing recipe, consisting of salt, sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite, along with some brown sugar, produced some of the country’s most award-winning country hams.
Also makin’ bacon
At about the same time, Charlie got into the bacon business. Far from the dime-a-dozen varieties, his was bona fide country bacon, dry rubbed and aged.
“There was a fellow near Memphis who sold his own country hams at a roadside stand,” Tripp says. “When he ran out of his own country hams, he bought ours and sold them. Later, when he was closing shop because no one in his family was available to take it over, he gave me the bacon recipe, noting it was ‘too good to be lost.’
“It was made with sodium nitrite, salt, sugar, red pepper and cinnamon,” he continues. “It was one of the best bacons I’d ever tasted and it remains a rarity today.”
But back to the country-ham story. The conveniently sliced and packaged country ham he produced took flight and is today found in Kroger, Publix, Piggly-Wiggly and SuperValue supermarkets throughout the region, even into Mississippi. He avoided most wholesalers and distributors (except for Sysco, which brought his product to restaurants) and used his own trucks and personnel to take his products to the stores.
“There is a certain amount of care and attention you need to pay when it’s your own product,” Charlie says. “We wanted to guarantee that every store that sold our product would sell it all, which meant rotating it and taking it back when needed. The product cannot be allowed to lose quality.”
His hams are aged from three to four months and his bacon is cured for up to four weeks before it is sliced and packaged. Country ham is shelfstable and while it is often sold outside of refrigerated cases, it does contain cooking instructions.
Tripp’s country hams are smoked, as most are made west of the Smoky Mountains. Those produced east of the mountain chain are normally sold unsmoked, a historical carryover based on weather differentials and regional taste preferences.
The Tripp enterprise is small with only 10 employees. The business includes a retail store and features such specialties as smoked ham hocks and gift packages, one of which is called a “country feast” that includes country ham in several serving-size packages and their country bacon. Today, only about 10 percent of Tripp’s country hams are sold whole, largely for the holiday trade.
With the volatility of the hog markets in the past year, the country-ham producer has a much longer buying curve to learn.
“We have to take advantage of lower price periods to keep our product cost low,” Charlie explains. “Hog costs go up starting in August through December, but after Christmas they come down. They rise again before Easter before dropping for the spring and summer. We try to buy during those low periods and partially process our hams and then put them into commercial cold storage. When the hog market is higher, we can then use from our storage inventory.”
Hog composition is critical for country hams. Tripp says that 15 years ago, hogs would have a oneinch fat covering, but he laments that it is now down to one-quarter inch. For the country-ham trade, a thin fat covering can dry out the hams to something kindred to jerky, he says.
While the repackaging of the country ham to better serve convenience-oriented consumers resulted in a dawning of the salad days for this industry, things appear even more promising for the future.
The Tripp Country Hams Web site (www.countryhams.com) features a new “center section” of country ham that targets an entirely different market. It is a boned-out section of aged country ham with all skin and excess fat removed and is sold vacuum packaged. It was a concept his wife, Judy, came up with when she observed how much easier it was to serve and slice.
“While traditional country ham has largely been Southern fare,” Tripp explains, there are new markets opening primarily in the Northeast and in Southern California.
“Years ago, you would rarely find a magazine or food editor who even knew what a country ham was or did stories on them,” Charlie says. “Now we are seeing imported Prosciutto or Spanish Serrano hams coming in at $10 or $20 a pound or more and serve as gourmet delicacies.
“But high-profile chefs and food editors are discovering that the aged country ham offers an equal or even better taste profile and they are writing like they just discovered or invented it. That’s good news for us and we are already seeing some significant expansion of our country ham markets in those areas.”
Charlie is almost giddy with enthusiasm about the rebirth of the entire country ham industry.
“There aren’t many of us [country ham producers], but nearly all belong to the National Country Ham Association where we know each other on a first-name basis,” he says. “Sure, we are all competitors, but we are still friends who are seeing our industry bouncing back in a big way.”
Steve Krut, an industry veteran, is a contributing editor writing exclusively for Meat&Poultry, specializing in small business issues. He resides in Marietta, Pa.