A print version of this article first appeared in Nougat Magazine in December, 2007. A local wag told his wife, who told me, "There's not that much wrong with Christmas, if only it came once every five years." Instead, at some point in mid-life, the holidays seem to bear down on us once every five minutes. We know we're supposed to be joyous, but we find we have taken the road most traveled ' all the way to the joyless mall.
I exited that road years ago, and never looked back. I had help. I read Unplug the Christmas Machine and Hundred Dollar Holiday. I sat down with a cup of homemade hot chocolate and listed all the best parts of recent holidays. I proposed three changes to our family: Keep the stockings and book gifts. Redirect our main gift money to Heifer International. Plan and cook special celebratory meals together.
Years later, with some tweaks, these guidelines still work for us. Food plays an increasingly important role. We still cook and eat memorable meals. Food gifts now stuff our stockings and food books spice up our book exchanges.
Some Kentucky food gifts work as well for business associates as for family. Carefully chosen food gifts taste good, require no watering or dusting, and (except for fruitcakes) get cleaned up and out, leaving good memories behind them.
Fine Kentucky country hams make brilliant food gifts, provided your recipients eat pork. Recently I sampled hams from two superb Kentucky producers. Nancy Newsom Mahaffey owns and runs a 90-year old family business producing hams and other cured and smoked meats in Princeton, Kentucky. Nancy, aka "the Ham Lady," says her ancestors started curing and smoking hams in Virginia in the 1700s. Col. Bill Newsom's Aged Kentucky Country Ham includes three ingredients: ham, brown sugar, salt. The brown sugar-salt mixture "cures" the hams by extracting moisture that would otherwise cause them to spoil. Smoking the hams over hickory wood adds vital flavor, and the hams age naturally, hanging in a building that exposes them to Kentucky's changeable weather for nearly a year. "Yes," Nancy said, "our hams went through that 100 degree weather this summer."
I tried the country ham along with Newsom's smoked and much more lightly cured gourmet barbeque ham, nitrate-free smoked bacon, smoked country sausage, and country ham prosciutto. All are deliciously, deeply smoky. Salty, too ' that goes without saying.
I bought the country ham already cooked, and I recommend you buy it cooked for gifts. Nancy takes no shortcuts from the traditional ways of curing and preparing hams, and it shows. I have never tasted better ham.
June and Leslie Scott ' high school sweethearts who have been married more than 47 years ' started Scott Hams as a part-time business in Greenville, Kentucky in 1965. This year a Scott Ham won first place at the Kentucky State Fair, bringing $200,000 for charity at an auction.
The Scotts also produce bacon, smoked sausage, prosciutto, and a wide variety of sweets and other food items. By guiding young 4-H Club members as they cure their own hams in the Scott Hams building, Leslie is growing a different kind of crop as well ' future country ham producers who have learned their skills the time-honored way, as apprentices to a master.
In spite of their prize ham's premium auction price, Scott Hams are astonishingly affordable, costing less per pound than some premium ice cream. Hams are smaller and leaner than in the past, which helps when buying whole hams for gifts.
Both Scott Hams and Col. Newsom hams have websites with decent pictures of their many products. You can order online, but you will have more fun if you call and talk to the people who do the work. As Nancy Mahaffey said, "Just call me and ask me any questions you come up with, because this is my topic."
I noticed any thoughts of grinchiness left once I started talking with June Scott and Nancy Mahaffey. Instead, I started feeling rich because I get to live among such outstanding artisans. I get to enjoy the gift of their commitment to sustaining fine traditional ways of partnering with nature to produce great food. Joy!