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.

14 Facts About Celiac Disease

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iStock.com/fcafotodigital

Going gluten-free may be a modern diet trend, but people have been suffering from celiac disease—a chronic condition characterized by gluten intolerance—for centuries. Patients with celiac are ill-equipped to digest products made from certain grains containing gluten; wheat is the most common. In the short-term this can cause gastrointestinal distress, and in the long-term it can foster symptoms associated with early death.

Celiac diagnoses are more common than ever, which also means awareness of how to live with the condition is at an all-time high. Here are some things you might not know about celiac disease symptoms and treatments.

1. Celiac an autoimmune disease.

The bodies of people with celiac have a hostile reaction to gluten. When the protein moves through the digestive tract, the immune system responds by attacking the small intestine, causing inflammation that damages the lining of the organ. As this continues over time, the small intestine has trouble absorbing nutrients from other foods, which can lead to additional complications like anemia and osteoporosis.

2. You can get celiac disease from your parents.

Nearly all cases of celiac disease arise from certain variants of the genes HLA-DQA1 and HLA-DQB1. These genes help produce proteins in the body that allow the immune system to identify potentially dangerous foreign substances. Normally the immune system wouldn't label gliadin, a segment of the gluten protein, a threat, but due to mutations in these genes, the bodies of people with celiac treat gliadin as a hostile invader.

Because it's a genetic disorder, people with a first-degree relative (a sibling, parent, or child) with celiac have a 4 to 15 percent chance of having it themselves. And while almost all patients with celiac have these specific HLA-DQA1 and HLA-DQB1 variations, not everyone with the mutations will develop celiac. About 30 percent of the population has these gene variants, and only 3 percent of that group goes on to develop celiac disease.

3. Makeup might contribute to celiac disease symptoms.

People with celiac disease can’t properly process gluten, the protein naturally found in the grains like wheat, rye, and barley. Patients have to follow strict dietary guidelines and avoid most bread, pasta, and cereal, in order to manage their symptoms. But gluten isn’t limited to food products: It can also be found in some cosmetics. While makeup containing gluten causes no issues for many people with celiac, it can provoke rashes in others or lead to more problems if ingested. For those folks, gluten-free makeup is an option.

4. The name comes from 1st-century Greece.

A 1st-century Greek physician named Aretaeus of Cappadocia may have been the first person to describe celiac disease symptoms in writing [PDF]. He named it koiliakos after the Greek word koelia for abdomen, and he referred to people with the condition as coeliacs. In his description he wrote, “If the stomach be irretentive of the food and if it pass through undigested and crude, and nothing ascends into the body, we call such persons coeliacs.”

5. There are nearly 300 celiac disease symptoms.

Celiac disease may start in the gut, but it can be felt throughout the whole body. In children, the condition usually manifests as bloating, diarrhea, and abdominal discomfort, but as patients get older they start to experience more “non-classical” symptoms like anemia, arthritis, and fatigue. There are at least 281 symptoms associated with celiac disease, many of which overlap with other conditions and make celiac hard to diagnose. Other common symptoms of the disease include tooth discoloration, anxiety and depression, loss of fertility, and liver disorders. Celiac patients also have a greater chance of developing an additional autoimmune disorder, with the risk increasing the later in life the initial condition is diagnosed.

6. Some patients show no symptoms at all.

It’s not uncommon for celiac disease to be wrecking a patient’s digestive tract while showing no apparent symptoms. This form of the condition, sometimes called asymptomatic or “silent celiac disease,” likely contributes to part of the large number of people with celiac who are undiagnosed. People who are at high risk for the disease (the children of celiac sufferers, for example), or who have related conditions like type 1 diabetes and Down syndrome (both conditions that put patients at a greater risk for developing new autoimmune diseases) are encouraged to get tested for it even if they aren’t showing any signs.

7. It’s not the same as wheat sensitivity.

Celiac is often confused with wheat sensitivity, a separate condition that shares many symptoms with celiac, including gastrointestinal issues, depression, and fatigue. It’s often called gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance, but because doctors still aren’t sure if gluten is the cause, many refer to it as non-celiac wheat sensitivity. There’s no test for it, but patients are often treated with the same gluten-free diet that’s prescribed to celiac patients.

8. It's not a wheat allergy either.

Celiac disease is often associated with wheat because it's one of the more common products containing gluten. While it's true that people with celiac can't eat wheat, the condition isn't a wheat allergy. Rather than reacting to the wheat, patients react to a specific protein that's found in the grain as well as others.

9. It can develop at any age.

Just because you don’t have celiac now doesn’t mean you’re in the clear for life: The disease can develop at any age, even in people who have tested negative for it previously. There are, however, two stages of life when symptoms are most likely to appear: early childhood (8 to 12 months) and middle adulthood (ages 40 to 60). People already genetically predisposed to celiac become more susceptible to it when the composition of their intestinal bacteria changes as they get older, either as a result of infection, surgery, antibiotics, or stress.

10. Not all grains are off-limits.

A gluten-free diet isn’t necessarily a grain-free diet. While it’s true that the popular grains wheat, barley, and rye contain gluten, there are plenty of grains and seeds that don’t and are safe for people with celiac to eat. These include quinoa, millet, amaranth, buckwheat, sorghum, and rice. Oats are also naturally gluten-free, but they're often contaminated with gluten during processing, so consumers with celiac should be cautious when buying them.

11. Celiac disease can be detected with a blood test.

Screenings for celiac disease used to be an involved process, with doctors monitoring patients’ reactions to their gluten-free diet over time. Today all it takes is a simple test to determine whether someone has celiac. People with the condition will have anti-tissue transglutaminase antibodies in their bloodstream. If a blood test confirms the presence of these proteins in a patient, doctors will then take a biopsy of their intestine to confirm the root cause.

12. The gluten-free diet doesn’t work for all patients.

Avoiding gluten is the most effective way to manage celiac disease, but the treatment doesn’t work 100 percent of the time. In up to a fifth of patients, the damaged intestinal lining does not recover even a year after switching to a gluten-free diet. Most cases of non-responsive celiac disease can be explained by people not following the diet closely enough, or by having other conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, lactose intolerance, or small intestine bacterial overgrowth that impede recovery. Just a small fraction of celiac disease sufferers don’t respond to a strict gluten-free diet and have no related conditions. These patients are usually prescribed steroids and immunosuppressants as alternative treatments.

13. If you don’t have celiac, gluten probably won’t hurt you.

The gluten-free diet trend has exploded in popularity in recent years, and most people who follow it have no medical reason to do so. Going gluten-free has been purported to do everything from help you lose weight to treat autism—but according to doctors, there’s no science behind these claims. Avoiding gluten may help some people feel better and more energetic because it forces them to cut heavily processed junk foods out of their diet. In such cases it’s the sugar and carbs that are making people feel sluggish—not the gluten protein. If you don’t have celiac or a gluten sensitivity, most experts recommend saving yourself the trouble by eating healthier in general rather than abstaining from gluten.

14. The numbers are growing.

A 2009 study found that four times as many people have celiac today than in the 1950s, and the spike can’t be explained by increased awareness alone. Researchers tested blood collected at the Warren Air Force Base between 1948 and 1954 and compared them to fresh samples from candidates living in one Minnesota county. The results supported the theory that celiac has become more prevalent in the last half-century. While experts aren’t exactly sure why the condition is more common today, it may have something to do with changes in how wheat is handled or the spread of gluten into medications and processed foods.

The Fascinating History Behind Why Jewish Families Eat Chinese Food on Christmas

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iStock

For Jewish New Yorkers, scoring a seat at one of veteran restaurateur Ed Schoenfeld’s Chinese eateries on Christmas Day could be compared to a holiday miracle. “I think on that day we do more business than many restaurants do in three months,” Schoenfeld tells Mental Floss. “We serve all day long, we stay open all day long.”

Schoenfeld is the Jewish owner-operator of RedFarm, an Asian-fusion dim sum restaurant with two locations in New York (plus one in London), and Decoy, a West Village shrine to traditional Peking duck. While his expertise lies in Far Eastern cuisine, Schoenfeld grew up in Brooklyn and learned to cook from his Eastern European grandmother. And just like his customers, Schoenfeld and his family sometimes craved Chinese food on Christmas, eschewing homemade fare for heaping plates of chow mein and egg foo yung. The future restaurateur's grandmother kept a kosher kitchen, but outside the home all dietary laws flew out the window with the single spin of a Lazy Susan. Suddenly, egg rolls with pork were fair game, transfigured into permissible delicacies through hunger and willful ignorance.

As Gentiles feast on turkey and roast beef during the Yuletide season, why do many Jews opt for chop suey? For starters, it's convenient: Chinese restaurants are open on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. But as historians and culinary experts tell Mental Floss, other ingredients play a part in this delicious story.

Jews developed their love for all things steamed, stir-fried, and soy-sauced after leaving the Old Country. Between the mid-1800s and the 1930s, waves of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Germany, and Greece began settling in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a gritty, inexpensive neighborhood teeming with tenements, docks, and factories—and filled with synagogues and kosher butcher shops. “You started here, and then moved on," Sarah Lohman, author of Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, says.

While Jewish immigrants found community on the Lower East Side, "there was a lot of discrimination against Jews at the turn of the century,” Lohman adds. "They were often criticized not only for not dressing like Americans and not speaking the language, but also for not converting to an 'American' religion."

Right next door to the burgeoning Jewish community on the Lower East Side was the city's nascent Chinatown. Many Chinese immigrants had initially come to the U.S. to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. After its completion in 1869, these laborers faced violence and discrimination in the western states. They came to New York City seeking new business opportunities, and some opened restaurants.

By and large, Chinese restaurateurs didn’t discriminate against Jewish customers. Joshua Eli Plaut writes in his book A Kosher Christmas: 'Tis the Season to be Jewish that the Chinese, as non-Christians, didn't perceive any difference between Anglo-Saxon New Yorkers and Jewish immigrants; they accepted all non-Chinese customers with open arms.

Jewish customers embraced Chinese food in return. The restaurants were conveniently located and inexpensive, yet were also urbane in their eyes. Jews saw dining out as an American custom that they wanted to try, largely because they sought upward mobility among other Americans. According to Yong Chen, a history professor and author of Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America, "[Diners] were attracted to Chinese food because, in their mind, it represented American cosmopolitanism and middle class status." And they weren't deterred by the fact that food in Chinese restaurants wasn't kosher. But they could easily pretend it was.

Dairy wasn’t a big part of Chinese meals, so Jewish diners didn’t have to worry about mixing meat and milk (a no-no in kosher diets). And non-kosher ingredients like pork or seafood were often finely chopped, drowned in sauces, or mixed with other ingredients, like rice. These elements were well disguised enough that they could pass for more permissible forms of meat. “You could kind of willfully ignore that there might be pork in there," Lohman says. "It’s like a vegetarian eating a soup that has chicken stock. If you’re a little flexible about your Judaism, you would just ‘not notice’ the pork in your fried rice.”

Chinese food was exotic and new, filled with surprising flavors, ingredients, and textures [PDF]. But for some Eastern European Jews, it also had familiar elements. Both Eastern European and Chinese cuisines shared an affinity for sweet and sour flavors and egg-based dishes. "[Chinese restaurants] had these pancakes, which were like blintzes,” says Joan Nathan, author of King Solomon's Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World, and the wontons resembled kreplach (both are meat-filled soup dumplings).

The fact that the Chinese and Jews were America’s two largest non-Christian immigrant populations brought them together, Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, tells Mental Floss. Unlike, say, Italian restaurants, Chinese restaurants were open on Sundays and on Christian holidays. They also lacked religious imagery, which may have made them appear more welcoming for Jews.

Combined, these factors caused the number of Chinese restaurants in urban East Coast cities to skyrocket during the early 20th century. Jews soon accounted for 60 percent of the white clientele in New York City's and Philadelphia’s Chinese restaurants, Chen writes, and Chinese restaurants would often go out of their way to cater to these clients. The eateries delivered their food to Jewish neighborhoods and to individual customers.

Yet an unwavering affection for Chinese food wasn't shared by all Jews. In an example cited by Chen and Lee, a reporter for Der Tog (The Day), a Yiddish daily newspaper in New York City, noted in 1928 that Jewish diners were in danger of drowning their culinary roots in soy sauce. To take back their taste buds, Jewish-Americans should hoist protest signs reading “Down with chop suey! Long live gefilte fish!” the journalist joked.

But Jewish cookbooks had already begun including Americanized dishes like chop suey and egg foo yung, which Chinese chefs had specially created to appeal to homegrown appetites. And as Lower East Side Jews moved to different neighborhoods, boroughs, and suburbs, Chinese restaurants followed them.

By the mid-20th century, Nathan says, Chinese restaurants had become de facto social clubs in Jewish communities. Familiar faces were always present, children were always welcome, and eating with your hands wasn’t just encouraged—it was required. Everyone left filled with food and gossip, whether it was Christmas or an ordinary Sunday evening.

Thanks to immigration patterns, nostalgia, and convenient hours of operation, this culinary custom has stuck around. “Jewish guests want to go out and eat Chinese food on Christmas,” Schoenfeld, the Manhattan restaurateur, says. “It’s become a tradition, and it’s extraordinary how it’s really grown.”

This story originally ran in 2017.

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