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Courtesy of Isle of Wight County Museum // Used by Permission
Courtesy of Isle of Wight County Museum // Used by Permission

The Story Behind the World’s Oldest (Pet) Ham

Courtesy of Isle of Wight County Museum // Used by Permission
Courtesy of Isle of Wight County Museum // Used by Permission

In 1931, P. D. Gwaltney Jr. entered a hotel in Washington, D.C. with a suitcase in his hand and a question on his mind: Could he stow a piece of luggage in the hotel’s vault? The clerk looked at the suitcase and asked what was inside that was so important. Gwaltney’s answer was, in effect, "Oh, just my pet ham."

Gwaltney wasn't joking. He was a ham man, the owner of one of the most successful pork-processing companies in Virginia, and he promoted his business by lugging around a 30-year-old smoked “pet ham,” which he showed off at county fairs, food shows, and even military ships. Much like a dog, it had its own personalized brass collar.

Ham on battleship
Courtesy of Isle of Wight County Museum // Used by Permission

Nor was Gwaltney joking about having the hotel safeguard it. An insurance company valued it at $5000—or $77,000 in today’s money. “Whenever he went to a food show, [Gwaltney] brought a special chain, and he’d bolt the chain to the floor so no one would steal the ham,” says Tracey L. Neikirk, curator of the Isle of Wight County Museum in Smithfield, Virginia.

It was all part of a clever marketing ploy that had helped cement Gwaltney’s hometown of Smithfield as the Ham Capital of the World.

 
 

Virginia and hams have gone together since the state was first settled. According to the inimitable The Country Ham Book by Jeanne Voltz and Elaine J. Harvell, when English colonists arrived in Jamestown in 1607, they came with a ship full of pigs. The vessels that followed in their wake also brought swine. Eventually, so many pigs were clogging the footpaths of nearby Williamsburg that locals banished the pigs to an island on the west bank of James River, now called Hog Island.

The pig population flourished around Smithfield and Isle of Wight County. When peanuts became the region’s go-to crop after the Civil War, the pigs were allowed to wander onto the peanut fields and fatten themselves on the leftovers of the year’s harvest. These peanut-stuffed pigs would launch Smithfield and its hams to culinary stardom.

The peanut diet—along with a lengthy curing process—produced a uniquely flavored ham that wowed taste buds across the globe. By the middle of the 19th century, Queen Victoria was ordering six Smithfield hams a week for her palace kitchen. Prices for Smithfield hams soared. When counterfeiters began hawking inferior meat under the same name, the Virginia state legislature created strict rules for what qualified as a Smithfield ham: The pigs had to be fed on a partial diet of peanuts, and the ham had to be cured within the boundaries of Smithfield proper.

In other words, Smithfield had become the Champagne of hams. Enter P. D. Gwaltney Jr.

 
 

In 1891, P. D. Gwaltney Jr. joined his father’s Smithfield peanut business and helped expand the company into a ham-making superpower. By this point, Junior had learned a few lessons in marketing from his old man: A year earlier, his father had picked a peanut from a local field, scribbled the year on it, and began showing the well-preserved specimen to anybody curious about the quality of his crop. As years passed, Gwaltney Sr. realized that the peanut’s age was an attraction in itself—today, it’s the oldest peanut in the world.

In 1902, Gwaltney Jr. pulled off a similar stunt when a single cured shank was accidentally forgotten in his warehouse. When he discovered the abandoned ham, Gwaltney smelled a smoking business opportunity. He decided to keep the ham to see how long it could last.

Gwaltney and Ham
Courtesy of Isle of Wight County Museum // Used by Permission

Years passed. In August 1921, one of the Gwaltney family peanut warehouses caught on fire, sending tons of peanuts and a nearby ham-house up in flames. According to the Isle of Wight County Museum, “The smell of burnt peanuts and melting fat hung in the air for weeks.” (Tragedy never smelled so delicious.) The pet ham, safely stowed offsite, was spared.

The fire permanently crippled Smithfield’s peanut business and left ham as the town’s top export. Gwaltney Jr. responded by aggressively promoting his ham products—and that meant trotting out the pet ham. He insured it for $1000, then he upped the protection to $5000. In 1932, the ham appeared in Robert Ripley’s Believe it Or Not (which claimed the ham “remains tender and sweet and fit to eat after 30 years”).

Now, the 116-year-old hunk of meat—officially the world’s oldest ham—is burnt maroon in color, marbled with splotches of yellow and white, and covered with deep wrinkles. It resembles old dried leather. It shares a special glass case with two fellow hams at the Isle of Wight County Museum.

A display of preserved hams with the world's oldest ham in the center.
The world's oldest ham (center).
Courtesy of the Isle of Wight County Museum // Used by Permission

According to Neikirk, the ham smells “smoky” and “woody.” (Its neighbor—the world’s largest ham, which weighs 65 pounds—is more complex: “It still has a thick layer of fat on it, and the fat still has peanut oil in it. So if it gets warm, you can actually smell peanuts.") And while both hams remain edible, the century-old specimen is not as appetizing as it used to be. “It’s more like ham jerky now,” Neikirk says.

Today, the museum continues the ham’s tasteful history of playful gimmickry. Each year, it holds a “Pan-Ham” competition, asking world travelers to bring a photo of Gwaltney and his ham on their vacations. (Winners are awarded a basket of peanuts.) The ham has a Twitter handle. And a webcam allows ham fans around the world the opportunity to check in 24/7.

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Food
How to Make Miles Davis’s Famous Chili Recipe
STF/AFP/Getty Images
STF/AFP/Getty Images

Miles Davis, who was born on May 26, 1926, was one of the most important and influential musicians of the 20th century, and changed the course of jazz music more times in his life than some people change their sheets. He was also pretty handy in the kitchen.

In his autobiography, Miles, Davis wrote that in the early 1960s, “I had gotten into cooking. I just loved food and hated going out to restaurants all the time, so I taught myself how to cook by reading books and practicing, just like you do on an instrument. I could cook most of the great French dishes—because I really liked French cooking—and all the black American dishes. But my favorite was a chili dish I called Miles's South Side Chicago Chili Mack. I served it with spaghetti, grated cheese, and oyster crackers."

Davis didn’t divulge what was in the dish or how to make it, but in 2007, Best Life magazine got the recipe from his first wife, Frances, who Davis said made it better than he did.

MILES'S SOUTH SIDE CHICAGO CHILIK MACK (SERVES 6)

1/4 lb. suet (beef fat)
1 large onion
1 lb. ground beef
1/2 lb. ground veal
1/2 lb. ground pork
salt and pepper
2 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. chili powder
1 tsp. cumin seed
2 cans kidney beans, drained
1 can beef consommé
1 drop red wine vinegar
3 lb. spaghetti
parmesan cheese
oyster crackers
Heineken beer

1. Melt suet in large heavy pot until liquid fat is about an inch high. Remove solid pieces of suet from pot and discard.
2. In same pot, sauté onion.
3. Combine meats in bowl; season with salt, pepper, garlic powder, chili powder, and cumin.
4. In another bowl, season kidney beans with salt and pepper.
5. Add meat to onions; sauté until brown.
6. Add kidney beans, consommé, and vinegar; simmer for about an hour, stirring occasionally.
7. Add more seasonings to taste, if desired.
8. Cook spaghetti according to package directions, and then divide among six plates.
9. Spoon meat mixture over each plate of spaghetti.
10. Top with Parmesan and serve oyster crackers on the side.
11. Open a Heineken.

John Szwed’s biography of Davis, So What, mentions another chili that the trumpeter’s father taught him how to make. The book includes the ingredients, but no instructions, save for serving it over pasta. Like a jazz musician, you’ll have to improvise. 

bacon grease
3 large cloves of garlic
1 green, 1 red pepper
2 pounds ground lean chuck
2 teaspoons cumin
1/2 jar of mustard
1/2 shot glass of vinegar
2 teaspoons of chili powder
dashes of salt and pepper
pinto or kidney beans
1 can of tomatoes
1 can of beef broth

serve over linguine

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Live Smarter
How to Choose the Best Watermelon
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Buying a watermelon is an experience one can grow to resent. The 92 percent moisture content of Citrullus lanatus means you're basically buying a giant ball of water. On the plus side, they're delicious and packed with enough vitamin C and D to keep you from getting scurvy.

But how to select the best of the batch? Food blogger Emma Christensen over at kitchn recently offered some advice, and it involves a little weight-training. When you examine watermelons in the produce section of your local grocery, you want to look for the heaviest one for its size. The denser the fruit, the more juice it has. That's when it's at its most ripe.

Next, check the underside of the watermelon for the "splotch." That's the yellow patch the watermelon develops by resting on the ground. If it's a creamy yellow, it's also a good indicator of being ripe.

Finally, give the underside a little smack—not aggressive enough to draw attention from grocery workers, but enough so that you can determine whether the watermelon sounds hollow. If it does, that's good. If it sounds dull, like you're hitting a solid brick of material, it's overripe; put the watermelon down and slowly back away from it.

If you're not confident in your watermelon evaluation abilities, there's another option: Local farmers markets typically have only choice product available, so any watermelon you pick up is likely to be a winner. You can also ask the merchant to pick one out for you. Pay attention to what he's doing and then try to emulate it the next time you're forced to choose your own produce.

[h/t: kitchn]

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