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.

Which Kind of Oatmeal is Best for Your Health?

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iStock

Like a lot of nutritionally robust foods, oatmeal sometimes gets a bad rap for being boring. Even the sight of plain, cooked oats—often resembling a mushy kind of paste—can have people passing it up in favor of a sugary cereal or pancake stack. But oatmeal can wind up being one of the better breakfast choices, not only in taste, but also in its health benefits, Time reports. It all comes down to what type of oatmeal you buy and how you prepare it.

To determine your best oat option, it helps to understand that oatmeal isn’t really oatmeal. When oats are harvested, they’re wrapped in a hard husk that manufacturers remove to facilitate cooking. Inside is the groat, a complete grain full of fiber. When you buy oatmeal that’s labeled “instant,” "quick-cooking," "rolled," or "old-fashioned," the groat has been steamed and rolled flat to make it easier to cook. The mostly unadulterated oatmeal labeled “steel-cut” or “Irish” is actually made up of groats that have been chopped up but are otherwise whole.

Typically, the faster you can cook the oatmeal, the more it’s been processed and the less it resembles the groat from the field. Because they resemble kernels and remain thick, steel-cut oatmeal requires the longest preparation, simmering on a stovetop for 30 minutes or so. Processed oats are flaky and can easily be heated.

Nutritionally, both rolled and steel-cut oats have the same profile. Both are fibrous and high in vitamins E, B1, and B12. Steel-cut oats have a heartier texture, while instant tends to take on a loose, light consistency. But because steel-cut oatmeal keeps more of the whole grain intact, it tends to be higher in fiber and lower on the glycemic index and provides more of a slow-burn energy as opposed to the quick burst of the sugar found in flavored instant oatmeal packets.

If you want to opt for steel-cut oats but are short on time, there are solutions. You can soak oats overnight to reduce cooking time down to 10 minutes or so on the stove, or prepare a week’s worth so you can quickly re-heat portions. Topped with yogurt, peanut butter, or fruit, it’s one of the best breakfast choices you can make. And with a little foresight, you won’t have to sacrifice your busy morning to enjoy it.

[h/t Time]

An Avocado Shortage Has Triggered a Fruit Crime Wave in New Zealand

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iStock

In New Zealand, getting started as an avocado grower is no easy task right now. That’s because, according to Stuff.co.nz and The Takeout, the country’s nurseries are currently experiencing a shortage of avocado saplings due to high demand.

Avocado prices are especially high in New Zealand, in part because of the country’s strict import rules. New Zealand doesn’t import avocados, and homegrown harvests have produced low yields in the past two years. Prices for the fruit have spiked, and the average avocado goes for about $3.30 according to The New York Times.

Some New Zealanders have responded to the shortage by trying to get into the avocado cultivation game themselves, but the rush to buy avocado saplings has led to a shortage for wholesalers and nurseries. Several nursery owners Stuff.co.nz spoke to currently have a large backlog of orders they haven’t yet filled. If you want a sapling this year, you’d better get in line. Some nurseries ran out as early as April, and more saplings might not come into stock until late September.

Some opportunistic New Zealanders have taken a different tack to get their avocado fix. There has been a rash of fruit theft from avocado orchards, and thieves are taking more than just one or two avocados. One grower reported losing 70 percent of his harvest to theft in July, costing him an estimated $100,000.

People looking to plant avocado trees shouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to get their hands on saplings, though. Winter in New Zealand isn’t yet over, and if you’re going to plant a new tree, you should probably wait until spring, anyway. And growing avocados isn’t an instant gratification hobby. Newly planted avocado trees don’t bear fruit for their first few years. That baby tree might take as long as four years to start producing guacamole ingredients.

[h/t The Takeout]

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