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The Jackson Sun, (TN)  March 23, 2005

Country ham is a favorite, any way you slice it

Author: LEA SCHNEIDER;  Edition: Madison Co. and West TN edition;  Section: Living

 Article Text:


  Ham season may be just around the corner, but at Tripp Country Hams in Brownsville, they got ready months ago.  "As soon as the greens come in, there starts to be a big demand," said Charlie Tripp, president and co-owner with his wife, Judy. "When fresh vegetables come in the gardens, there is another big demand.

 "While taking a quick peek at the cutting room, Tripp points out the various stations, brightly lit and scrubbed clean but nevertheless smoky smelling.  Cutting boards and sharp knives are in action. With big customers such as Kroger and Wal-Mart, you'd think that the room would be filled with machines. 

"(Machines) don't do that good of a job. There is a lot of hands-on work in good country ham," said Tripp, a Brownsville native and University of Tennessee Knoxville graduate. His father and brother-in-law started the business in the 1960s.

 Striding down a corridor of concrete floors, cold blasts come from one door and heat from another. From all comes the rich, salty tang of good old country ham-not just any ham but the 2004 Grand Champion Ham of the National Country Ham Producers.

 An enormous amount of salt, white sugar, sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite are mixed together and hand rubbed onto each ham. The nitrates preserve the color.

 It's a cold blast that moves out of the curing room, kept 30 to 38 degrees. Along one wall, white square tubs are stacked. On the opposite wall, bellies, or slabs of bacon, hang to chill, waiting for slicing.

It's the middle of the room that gets the attention.  Mountains of hams are in more square plastic tubs, each filled to capacity. The meat is crusty with salt. The room will hold about 14,000 hams. After five days, they are salted all over again, known as reworking the hams.  "We buy tractor trailer loads of fresh hams," Tripp said of meat coming in from Ohio. Rubbed with the salt cure, they stay in the curing room for seven weeks.

 The whole process of country hams came before refrigeration. The meat was salted down as a way to remove the moisture in order to preserve it.  "Once you preserved it, you then hung it in the smokehouse. A fire was going to keep the smoking going to keep insects and rodents from getting on the meat," Tripp said. The famous flavor of smoked meat is a natural by-product of pest control.

How it works

 Today's country hams duplicate much of that process.  Once the hams have left the curing room, they are washed and wrapped in net. Across the way, they hang tied on wooden racks, chilling at about 45 degrees.  "This is the equalization room. The moisture and salt content equalizes throughout the ham," Tripp said. The approximately 5,000 hams will be there for two weeks.  Step by step, the hams are led through a process that duplicates the seasons: First curing, which is very cold; then equalizing, which is cool; and then into a warm room, 80 to 85 degrees. Swinging open a door, the heat and smell of ham hanging row upon row are a furnace blast after the cold rooms. They will age there for four weeks.

The meat is hauled to the smoke room for a week. All day and night, a homemade machine vibrates bits of hickory sawdust down on hot coals. A fan sends the smoke into the room set at 100 degrees to duplicate that hot summer day.

 Tripp takes three months to produce a country ham. The hardest part of the country ham business is anticipating inventory. It takes a long time to produce a good ham, so the company can't suddenly have more available to meet an instant demand.

 Sandwiches, or biscuit cuts, center slices with the bones, four-pound hams, ham hocks and bits for seasoning are being trimmed out with the sharp knives and a slicer in the cutting room. Meat is being packaged across the way.

 Carolina Evans is on quality control. She makes sure it looks just so.  Robby Lewis, a career meat cutter, has been slicing away at Tripp for five years. Wearing a protective arm shield and gloves, he grabs his knife and smacks down a ham that has been 'busted' by Larry Overcast.  Busting means to take off the hocks and butt end. Pieces flying, he makes the skin and fat fly off the ham. In an instant, he turns the knife in a circle and cuts the bone clean away.  "After eight-hours a day for five years, you get a little faster," he joked.  Across the table, fellow ham cutter Jack McCuan joked that you get slower after you have been there 14 years.

 Despite the ever-present smell of ham and the handling of 150 each day, Lewis still eats ham.  "I love it," he said as he slaps down another ham. "I take some and put it in a skillet over medium heat with a little water. I like it on biscuits with a little butter and molasses."  Overcast shares tips, too.  "I simmer mine in water," he said. "I use a slow-cook method from on the package. That is the way I like it the best-it is nice and tender, and it takes a little of the salt out." 

All! 12 employees can do every job, and that includes Charlie Tripp, with one exception. Judy can cook ham, and he confesses he can't. 

Overcast is busting at his slicer, creating four-pounders by trimming large hams down to a marketable four-pound size. He takes off the hock, the skins and the fat and then slices the remaining ham until four pounds remain. Each item is packaged. There is very little waste. 

On the counter in the break area is a cold boiled ham, a platter of hot fried ham and yeast rolls. Both methods produce different flavors.  Believe it or not, employee birthdays are celebrated with ham and cake. 

Boiled Tripp Country Ham

The country ham has lost a considerable amount of moisture, so we like to simmer instead of bake.

Instructions: Cut off approximately 3 inches of the hock, which can be used to cook with beans, etc. Weigh the ham and place in vessel large enough to be completely covered with water. Soak the ham in cold water 12 hours.  Drain and replace with fresh water. Insert meat thermometer, bring to a boil then turn heat down to simmer and cover with a lid. Let the ham simmer 20 minutes per pound.  Do not boil, just simmer this is important. 

You may add optional ingredients to the water when boiling country ham, including 1 cup molasses and cover ham with water; or 1 (64 ounce) bottle apple juice; or 1 cup vinegar and 1 cup brown sugar; or 1 (64 ounce) bottle of cola. 

After cooking, remove from stove and allow ham to cool in water in which it was cooked. Remove rind, wrap in foil paper and place in refrigerator to get cold before slicing.

Cook's note: It is better to cook the day before serving in order to chill for slicing.

Slow Fried Tripp Country Ham With Redeye Gravy

Slice country ham 1/4 to 1/3 inch thick. Put it in a seasoned iron skillet and add just a little water. Cook it real slow on low for about 10 minutes, turning often. What's left is the redeye gravy fixins.

Remove ham to a heated platter. Pour 112 to 3/4 cup of water into the pan. You may also add 2 tablespoons brewed coffee to water, if desired. Increase the heat to moderate and simmer 3 to 5 minutes, stirring until gravy is reddish. This is the redeye gravy. Pour it over biscuits and the ham.

Storing a Country Ham

Thinking of days gone by, older folks often want to hang a ham in the garage and soon forget about it, Charlie Tripp, owner of Tripp Country Hams in Brownsville, said.  Removing moisture preserves the ham. When you buy a ham, it is already dry. Hanging it up only makes it dry out even more and is a way to ruin a great ham. 

Today's hogs are very lean. Fifty years ago, a ham had two to three-inches of fat, and that acted as a barrier to keep in the moisture,' Tripp said. Today, he sees ham with one-half to one-fourth inch fat and sometimes hardly any fat at all.  'We recommend that if they get a whole ham, to put it in the freezer just like it is in its paper and net,' Tripp said. The hams are already aged to the right degree, and freezing it will halt that process.

 Find out more

Tripp Country Hams of Brownsville sells its hams at local grocery stores. The company also will ship hams as gifts within the United States. To order, view the products at www.countryhams.com. Or call (800) 471-9814.  Recipes and other information also are available online.

 Copyright (c) The Jackson Sun. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Gannett Co., Inc. by NewsBank, inc.

Record Number: jktl5401690


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