Southern staple now a rarity

When did country ham become so hard to find in the South?

We’re not talking the greasy stuff that has to fried up before eating –  the kind that requires red-eye gravy on the side.

We’re talking fully cooked smoked ham, sliced so thin that it’s nearly transparent. The kind of ham that, when gently warmed in the oven – and preferably encased in a White House roll –  melts into a salty slice of heaven. The prosciutto of the South.

In my hometown, Richmond, Va.-based Ukrops grocery stores always had at least three different brands of Smithfield ham ready for slicing in the deli case.  Right next to the olive loaf.

When I moved to North Carolina and actually learned that there was another Smithfield that claimed its hams were the best, I figured the stuff would be just as available.

Ha!

Occasionally, when a new grocery chain store opens in town, the deli has Smithfield ham. But it soon disappears. Maybe I’m the only one buying it. Maybe only a few people expect to see it in the deli case next to that imposter, the sweet, bland, so-called “Virginia brand ham.”

Yeah, I can get it online. But since it usually comes in a three-pound piece that costs nearly $40, and since I don’t happen to have a deli-style meat slicer in my kitchen, – not an option.

But for a recent party, a few calls found one place, The Fresh Market, that still offers fully cooked country ham sliced to order. So I drove 45 minutes to plunk down my money. Got so excited that I bought too much.

The ham biscuits, served on pillowy angel biscuits, disappeared faster than the lobster salad.

But we still have a nice pile of leftover ham. So for the next week, we will ignore sodium warnings and devour country ham omelettes, grilled ham and peanut butter sandwiches (ooh, salty and sweet), and ham and cantelope on salads.

The upcoming dog days of summer are looking a little less dreary.

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