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.

12 Strange-But-Real Ice Cream Flavors

ipekata/iStock via Getty Images
ipekata/iStock via Getty Images

I scream, you scream, we all scream for … horse flesh ice cream? Okay, so maybe “we all" don’t. But some people do. A lot of people, in fact. Lobster, foie gras, and ghost pepper, too. Next time you’re craving an ice-cold cone, why not step out of your vanilla/chocolate comfort zone to try one of these 12 strange-but-real ice cream flavors.

1. Horse Flesh

There are two dozen attractions within Tokyo’s indoor amusement park, Namja Town, but it would be easy to spend all of your time there pondering the many out-there flavors at Ice Cream City, where Raw Horse Flesh, Cow Tongue, Salt, Yakisoba, Octopus, and Squid are among the flavors that have tickled (or strangled) visitors' taste buds.

2. Pickled Mango

As one of the country’s most decorated ice cream makers, Jeni Britton Bauer—proprietor of Ohio-based Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams—is constantly pushing the boundaries of unique treats, as evidenced by her lineup of limited edition flavors, including last summer's Pickled Mango (a cream cheese-based ice cream with a slightly spicy mango sauce made of white balsamic vinegar, white pepper, allspice, and clove) and this year's Goat Cheese With Red Cherries.

3. Corn on the Cob

Since opening Max & Mina’s in Queens, New York in 1998, brothers/owners Bruce and Mark Becker have created more than 5000 one-of-a-kind ice cream flavors, many of them adapted from their grandfather’s original recipes. Daily flavor experiments mean that the menu is ever-changing, but Corn on the Cob (a summer favorite), Horseradish, Garlic, Pizza, Lox, and Jalapeño have all made the lineup.

4. Foie Gras

New York City's OddFellows takes the "odd" in its name seriously, and has become synonymous with experimental flavors. Since opening their doors in 2013, they've concocted more than 300 different kinds of the cold stuff—including a Foie Gras varietal.

5. Pear and Blue Cheese

“Salty-sweet” is the preferred palette at Portland, Oregon-based Salt & Straw, where sugar and spice blend together nicely with flavors like Strawberry Honey Balsamic Strawberry With Cracked Pepper and Pear With Blue Cheese, a well-balanced mix of sweet Oregon Trail Bartlett Pears mixed with crumbles of Rogue Creamery's award-winning Crater Lake Blue Cheese. Yum?

6. Ghost Pepper

“Traditional” isn’t the word you’d choose to describe any of the 100 ice cream varieties at The Ice Cream Store in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. They don’t have vanilla, they have African Vanilla or Madagascar Vanilla Bean. But things only get wilder from there, and the shop’s proprietors clearly have a penchant for the spicy stuff. In addition to their Devil's Breath Carolina Reaper Pepper Ice Cream—a bright red vanilla ice cream mixed with cinnamon and a Carolina Reaper pepper mash—there's also the classic Ghost Pepper Ice Cream, which was featured in a Ripley's Believe It or Not book in 2016. Just be warned: you'll have to sign a waiver if you plan to order either flavor.

7. Bourbon and Corn Flake

You never know exactly which flavors will appear as part of the daily-changing lineup at San Francisco’s Humphry Slocombe, but they always make room for the signature Secret Breakfast. Made with bourbon and Corn Flakes, you’d better get there early if you want to try it; it sells out quickly and on a daily basis.

8. Fig and Fresh Brown Turkey

The sweet-toothed scientists at New York City’s Il Laboratorio del Gelato have never met a flavor they didn’t like—or want to turn into an ice cream. How else would one explain the popularity of their Fig & Fresh Brown Turkey gelato, a popular selection among the hundreds flavors they have created thus far. (Beet and Cucumber are just two of their other fascinating flavors.)

9. Lobster

Don’t let the “chocolate” in the title fool you: Ben & Bill’s Chocolate Emporium in Bar Harbor, Maine makes the most of The Pine Tree State’s most famous delicacy with its signature Lobster Ice Cream, a butter ice cream-based treat with fresh (again buttered) lobster folded into each bite.

10. Creole Tomato

The philosophy at New Orleans’ Creole Creamery is simple: “Eat ice cream. Be happy.” What’s not as easy is choosing from among their dozens of rotating ice creams, sorbets, sherbets and ices. But only the most daring of diners might want to swap out a sweet indulgence for something that sounds more like a salad, as it the case with the Creole Tomato.

11. Eskimo Ice Cream

If you happen to find yourself in an ice cream shop in Juneau, remember this: Eskimo ice cream—also known as Akutag—is not the same thing as an Eskimo Pie, that chocolate-covered ice cream bar you’ll find in just about any grocery store. Though the statewide delicacy has usually got enough fresh berries mixed in to satisfy one’s sweet tooth, its base is actually animal fat (reindeer, caribou, possibly even whale).

12. Cheetos

Big Gay Ice Cream started out as an experimental ice cream truck and morphed into one of New York City’s most swoon-worthy ice cream shops, where the toppings make for an inimitable indulgence. One of their most unique culinary inventions? A Cheetos-inspired cone, where vanilla and cheese ice cream is dipped in Cheetos dust.

Why Do People Get Ice Cream Headaches?

CharlieAJA, istock/getty images plus
CharlieAJA, istock/getty images plus

Reader Susann writes in to ask, "What exactly is the cause of brain freeze?"

You may know an ice cream headache by one of its other names: brain freeze, a cold-stimulus headache, or sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia ("nerve pain of the sphenopalatine ganglion"). But no matter what you call it, it hurts like hell.

Brain freeze is brought on by the speedy consumption of cold beverages or food. According to Dr. Joseph Hulihan—a principal at Paradigm Neuroscience and former associate professor in the Department of Neurology at the Temple University Health Sciences Center, ice cream is a very common cause of head pain, with about one third of a randomly selected population succumbing to ice cream headaches.

What Causes That Pain?

As far back as the late 1960s, researchers pinned the blame on the same vascular mechanisms—rapid constriction and dilation of blood vessels—that were responsible for the aura and pulsatile pain phases of migraine headaches. When something cold like ice cream touches the roof of your mouth, there is a rapid cooling of the blood vessels there, causing them to constrict. When the blood vessels warm up again, they experience rebound dilation. The dilation is sensed by pain receptors and pain signals are sent to the brain via the trigeminal nerve. This nerve (also called the fifth cranial nerve, the fifth nerve, or just V) is responsible for sensation in the face, so when the pain signals are received, the brain often interprets them as coming from the forehead and we perceive a headache.

With brain freeze, we're perceiving pain in an area of the body that's at a distance from the site of the actual injury or reception of painful stimulus. This is a quirk of the body known as referred pain, and it's the reason people often feel pain in their neck, shoulders, and/or back instead of their chest during a heart attack.

To prevent brain freeze, try the following:

• Slow down. Eating or drinking cold food slowly allows one's mouth to get used to the temperature.

• Hold cold food or drink in the front part of your mouth and allow it to warm up before swallowing.

• Head north. Brain freeze requires a warm ambient temperature to occur, so it's almost impossible for it to happen if you're already cold.

This story has been updated for 2019.

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