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The American South has a distinct food culture that hooks natives and visitors alike. Writer and Kentucky resident Maggie Dickman shares the recipe that puts the region on the map.
Text: Maggie Dickman
Country: USA

have always sought the excitement of visiting a new place, seeing new sights, meeting new people, and exploring a new city. In addition to traveling all over, I’ve also lived in several different places. Living in another country or culture provides a unique insight into daily life that is missed when simply visiting. Regardless of if I’m just passing through or if I’ve settled in a place for a while, my favorite part of any culture is its food. The United States is no exception. It is home to several distinct cultures, including that of the American South, which includes the states that made up the Confederacy in the American Civil War.

From architecture to language, Southern culture is like nowhere else in the U.S., and the region really steps up to the plate when it comes to its food. I moved to Kentucky in 2016 just to change things up, and the food is one of the reasons I’m still here. Although Kentucky was never technically a Confederate state (it was neutral before joining the Union), residents here boast about being “southern,” and if the food is any indication, it deserves that title.

It’s not uncommon to find oneself amicably arguing with a friend over whose grandmother is the best cook. Josh Elam, of Louisville, Kentucky, wins that argument. He swears that his grandmother makes the best country ham he’s ever tasted, and I agree. Meredith Scalos, of Campbellsville, Kentucky, has been studying in Oxford, England, for six months, and she misses food far more than anything else, especially country ham. Since moving to Kentucky I have tried an abundance of country ham, but before living here I had never even heard of it. I just figured it was regular ham with the word “country” tacked on to make it sound more authentic. To find out more about this magical food that an entire region yearns for, I reached out to Elam’s grandmother, Louise Duff.

Duff explained that country ham comes from “the back portion of the hog,” she said. “[Butchers] use all parts of the hog. The ham section is not sliced at that time. It’s treated.” By treated, she means it is preserved in some manner, sometimes by smoking, but usually with a lot of salt. Duff recalls her maternal grandfather’s process for making country ham. “I can remember my grandfather used a lot of salt. It would hang outside of a building, and they would say ‘it’s cured’ and that’s when the slicing starts.” After the meat is sliced, it can then be cooked and enjoyed.

Duff learned how to make country ham because she adored her grandfather so much she would follow him around everywhere. Eventually she learned the recipe from her grandmother. Duff says, “I put oil in the skillet. Then I lay the ham slices in there.” She warns not to have the skillet extremely hot. “Then I put some water in the skillet and put a lid on it because it makes it more tender.”

She said that many people don’t add the water, which makes her country ham particularly appealing to her grandson. She also said the brand of meat can drastically affect the overall taste. She prefers a brand called Coon’s Creek, sold at the local shop in Russell County. Duff advises that whatever the brand, the red meat is best when buying already sliced ham.

Country ham can be eaten at breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Duff shared an extra bit of insider Kentuckian information when she told me about red-eye gravy. Unlike white gravies that are made using flour, red-eye gravy is made with the drippings from country ham and cold black coffee, which gives the gravy its name. Because no flour is used, this recipe produces thin gravy that tops the country ham quite nicely.

In addition to red-eye gravy, country ham is often paired with beans. Elam prefers baked beans with his dish, but his grandmother likes lima beans. True to the sentiment of food being tied to culture and family, Duff recalled a fond memory of when she was pregnant with her daughter, Jackie, in the mid-1950s.

“When I was pregnant with Jackie I craved lima beans, and my grandfather that cured the ham—his wife’s name was Vellie, but he called her ‘Belly’—He’d say to her, ‘Belly, fix her some lima beans and country ham and cornbread!’” Duff threw back her head and laughed at that memory. She said she still thinks of her grandfather when she eats country ham and lima beans today.

In addition to missing country ham, Scalos laments, “Aside from the foods themselves I also miss food culture. I miss the kind of social activity food represents and the community from it as well. It’s just not the same [in England].”

Southern food culture is also big business. Cracker Barrel is a popular restaurant chain that emphasizes the comforts of southern hospitality. Its commercials strategically use words and phrases like, “home style”, “homemade”, and “stop on by, you’re always welcome”. Dining at Cracker Barrel feels like eating at home because it’s the same food Southerners were raised on. The dishes taste just like they were made with the loving care of a grandmother, albeit not quite as good as Elam’s grandmother.

I travel for the food, and so far, Kentucky has not disappointed. However, I also travel for the drink. Local drinks are just as important to the culture as the food. Spain has its sangria and Italy has its cappuccinos. Kentucky has its bourbon. Bourbon is woven so tightly into Kentucky’s history that it’s almost impossible to enjoy one without the other.

Bourbon is a whiskey, but with more stipulations. By law, it “must be made with a minimum of 51 percent corn, must be aged in new, charred oak barrels, stored at no more than 125 proof, and bottled at no less than 80 proof,” according to the website kybourbon.com. Bourbon also must be made within the United States. The first bourbon ever produced came from Bourbon County, Kentucky. The state has the ideal climate and conditions for brewing this spirit, so it’s no wonder that it produces 95 percent of the world’s bourbon today.

Beyond the unique regulations surrounding bourbon, it has a very interesting history as well. Buffalo Trace distillery, in Frankfort, Kentucky, has been making bourbon for more than 200 years, including through the Prohibition era of the 1920s, when the sale and consumption of alcohol was prohibited. By the end of the Prohibition in 1933 only four distilleries in Kentucky were still able to produce whiskey. Buffalo Trace was granted rare government permission to bottle medicinal whiskey during Prohibition, and from 1930-1933, it was even allowed to bottle new bourbon.

Because bourbon’s main ingredient is corn, it has a stronger, sweeter taste than other whiskeys. The professionals at Wild Turkey, another bourbon distillery in Kentucky, explain the process of bourbon-tasting. They say it comes down to four qualities: color, aroma, taste, and finish. The color tells the taster about the age: the darker the color, the older the bourbon. This is because the alcohol absorbs the color of the barrel over time. The aroma varies depending on the bourbon, but all should smell of oak, and most will have hints of vanilla, caramel, or orange. Experts recommend adding a few drops of water to your glass to release the aromas. The next component of tasting is the taste. To really appreciate the flavor, breathe in slightly as you sip the bourbon. You should be able to taste the aromas you just inhaled. Last but not least is the finish. According to Wild Turkey, “A great bourbon lingers on the tongue. Wild Turkey is known for its long, rich, and full-bodied finish.”

I’ve traveled to dozens of countries and much of the United States. I can confidently say that living in Kentucky has by far exceeded my expectations in terms of culture, especially its food. I only barely touched on the many wonderful dishes one will enjoy here. In September, London, Kentucky, hosts the World Chicken Festival, for example. The whiskey is exquisite, and the food is like coming home after a long time away.

Fact Box:

· The first Cracker Barrel was opened in 1969 in Lebanon, Tennessee, by Dan Evins.

· An epicure is a person who takes particular pleasure in food and drink. Some epicures prefer ham from the left leg of the hog because it’s more tender than ham from the right leg.

· Kentucky distilleries filled 1,886,821 barrels of bourbon in 2016.

· During each year of aging, 3% to 4% of bourbon naturally evaporates from the barrel. Approximately one-third of the bourbon will evaporate in a seven- to nine-year aging period. This lost alcohol is called the “Angel’s Share” because it evaporates up to Heaven for the angels.




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Tastes like Home


I love visiting new places, seeing new sights, meeting new people, and exploring a new city. But my favorite part of any culture is its food. The United States is no exception. It is home to several distinct cultures, including that of the American South. Southern culture is very different from the rest of the U.S., especially its food.

I moved to Kentucky in 2016 just to change things up, and the food is one of the reasons I'm still here. It is common here for friends to argue over whose grandmother is the best cook. My friend Josh Elam of Louisville, Kentucky, wins that argument. He swears that his grandmother makes the best country ham he's ever tasted, and I agree.

I had never heard of country ham before I moved here. I figured it was just regular ham with the word "country" tacked on to make it sound more authentic. To find out more about this magical food that an entire region yearns for, I reached out to Elam's grandmother, Louise Duff.

Duff explained that country ham comes from "the back portion of the hog," she said. "[Butchers] use all parts of the hog. The ham section is not sliced at that time. It's treated." By treated, she means it is preserved in some manner, sometimes by smoking, but usually with a lot of salt. Duff learned to make country ham from her grandfather.

In Kentucky country ham is usually served with red-eye gravy and beans. Red-eye gravy is made with the drippings from country ham and cold black coffee. Kentucky is also famous for its bourbon, a whiskey made from corn that is stronger and sweeter than other whiskeys.

 

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Tastes Like Home

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Country Ham

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