About a year ago, I had to take care of some family business in Virginia. On my way down, I stopped at a groovy little gas station-turned barbeque joint called “Shaffers” in Middletown, Virginia. In the bays where once stood lifts and tool boxes and oil drums were beds of mac and cheese, greens and brunswick stew, cases of every possible beer to wash it down and shelf after shelf of jars of sauces, sides and other take-home deliciousness.
On an antique hutch in the corner lay a stack of plump, soft linen sacks, looking much like overweight old-time toy dolls in old-time nightgowns. I picked one up – it was heavier than I’d expected – turned it over, gave it a look, read over the sack. . filled with descriptions and instructions.. It was a ham. A Virginia salt-cured, dry aged country ham. I held it for a while, turned it over again, listening to the paper inside crinkle with every move over a hard rind below. I looked around and the woman behind the counter caught the my eye and without me asking, she answered. “It’s 3.99 a pound. Another dollar a pound if we cook it for you.”
The second part threw me. Cook it for me? Why would anyone need their ham cooked for them? I looked back down at the linen sack. There were instructions for soaking, baking for trimming, for storing, for glazing, for freezing. . . .this was, it seemed, no ordinary ham. It was a high-maintenance ham. A ham not to be taken lightly. And for something that’s been a southern, country way of life for well over a hundred years, it seemed awfully involved. I gave her a smile and put it back. “No, just looking, thank you.” And I left.
The next morning, headed north and back home, I took advantage my early start and found some back roads to get me at least part way. I’d left before daylight and as the morning drew on and I grew hungry I kept an eye out for something to eat. In some little town, on some little road, I came across some little cafe. It was cute and modern, people scattered about the stark, clean, bright interior, drinking coffee and tea, reading papers and books. And in the back, a counter, a menu on a chalkboard and a large, bearded young man patiently waiting for me to tell him what I wanted.
I’m very much a “when in Rome” kind of guy. So when I’m in Virginia and I see something called a “Ham Biscuit” on a menu, I get the Ham Biscuit. But I’m also a hungry guy, and I’m not a complete savage, so I got the Ham Biscuit with egg.
I sat in the car and marveled at the little chunk of heaven in my hand. I examined it from every angle. I took bites and did everything in my power to make those bites linger. Even when it was gone, I took way longer than I should have crumbling the wrapping paper in my hand, feeling the whole greasy, waxy mess ball up just to assure myself it was, in fact, gone. And then I tossed it on to the passenger-side floor and drove on.
Yet, to this day, a year later, I still lay awake at night dreaming of that sandwich and I wake some mornings already sad that I won’t start my day with one. Everything about it was perfect – from the crinkly paper reminiscent of the ham I’d cradled the day before. . .the biscuit that was soft and crumbly. . .the egg, so perfectly done. . .the cheddar, soft and sharp. . and the ham. . that ham. . firm, pink, and salty. All of it. Perfect.
What I didn’t do – among the whole delicious diversion – was take note of where I was. Looking back, I don’t know what town I was in. I don’t know the name of the cafe. I don’t even know what road I was on. I’ve studied maps, tried to retrace my route with google maps and paper maps. . .I really have no idea where I was, nor any idea how to find that sandwich again. Like the girl you once exchanged smiles with from across a room, but never struck up the nerve to talk to, she’s gone.
* * * * *
This year- a year later, my wife, our boys and I were headed back down to Virginia for Thanksgiving. I made it a point to swing by that gas station barbeque joint. Perhaps it was just for the pulled pork. Or maybe it was something deeper. After lunch while everyone was taking turns hitting the bathroom before we were back in the car for the rest of the ride, I meandered around the store. . gazing at jars, fingering past snacks. . . and finding my way to the stack of cotton-clad hams in the corner. I picked one up, rolled it over, held it back to read it and glanced at my wife.
“It’s a ham”
She always uses my full name when she’s serious. Or annoyed. Or both.
“Christopher. We do not need a ham.”
I disagreed. Who doesn’t need a ham? Ok, people who kept Kosher, perhaps. But who else? Do you eat ham? Sure. If you eat ham, you need a ham. It’s pretty simple when you think about it. We eat ham. How do we eat ham? Buy buying ham. If you eat ham, you need ham. That’s how it works.
Simple logic, really. But I could tell that it’d been a long drive already, with more to go, and that she wasn’t in much of a mood to argue logic. So I put the ham down and we left.
The nice thing about brothers-in-law – on either side- is that they have a pretty good idea of what you’re up against on a daily basis because they’ve either been up against the same at some point, or they’re working with the product of the very same DNA day in and day out as well. And so, on a rainy afternoon a few days after Thanksgiving, as we all walked out of a restaurant where we’d all enjoyed a nice lunch together, when my wife’s sister saw a charming boutique they just had to visit, her husband saw that moment and he seized it like he’d been planning on it all his life, and yet played it cool like a pro.
“Ok. I’ll just grab a ride with Chris and we’ll head back home.”
Once he and I and my boys were safely in the parking garage and in our jeep and far, far out of earshot, he looked at me out of the corner of his eye, as if there were still reason to remain on the down-low and said, quiety, yet urgently “do you want to go to the ham store?”
The Ham Store. There’s a place called “The Ham Store.”
The Ham Store wasn’t, as I imagined, in a magical, golden palace on a hill adorned by pigs gracefully grazing the surrounding hills and patiently awaiting their privileged turn to become the sought-after saline serrano. It was a storefront in a strip mall. The inside, however, was everything it ought to have been.
Two sweet southern women, one in her forties, one in her fifties seemed just as excited, if not more than I was for my first Virginia Country Ham experience. They started with the very same line I’d heard a year ago. “It’s an additional dollar per pound if we cook it for you.”
I stopped. I almost asked, but I didn’t want to offend any present company, so I offered back “I’m pretty capable in the kitchen. . . what is there to preparing one?”
The younger of the women started to explain the process. The older queued up a video in which their corporate chef prepped, cooked and carved a fifteen pound ham in under six minutes. We talked more, and I left with a cotton sack of ham, a package of a ridiculously aged, thinly sliced prosciutto-type ham to serve as a peace offering to my wife, and a jar of three-berry jam my youngest son had been eyeing because that’s how you keep allies in such matters.
The prosciutto was sublime. The ham was laughed off. My son has already finished the jam.
* * * * *
We were running late the night I decided to cook the ham, out getting a christmas tree and seeing friends. I put it in the oven around 7:00 pm on a Saturday night, enjoyed an old fashioned and fell asleep on the couch like a child awaiting santa’s visit. When I awoke at 1:00 am to check the temperature, the house was filled with a musky, meaty, salty, absolutely intoxicating smell. My stomach gurgled. “I know” I told it . “I know.” I checked the temp on the ham. Too low. Back in, back on the couch. I checked it again at 2. And finally at 3:00 am, 8 hours later, I went to bed, the ham wrapped in foil and coasting to a finish on the counter. All this for one, singular purpose. To replicate those ham biscuits I’d had over a year ago.
On Sunday morning, with only 5 hours of on-again-off-again sleep, I opened my eyes and I smiled. After roughly 375 days of want, I was finally going to come within stone’s throw of that very same breakfast.
Now, if we’re being completely honest, my biscuit game stinks. An old southern mamaw I will not be any time soon. They were, although tasty, more like pucks than the soft, crumbly swaddling I recalled. No matter. Everything else was on. I’d very carefully cracked the eggs, piled them over themselves into biscuit-sized rounds and flipped them to a perfect over-medium. I’d picked up some sharp cheddar, peeled off slight slices and let it melt softly on the just-flipped eggs. And the ham – that ham – sliced thin against the grain, seared in the pan along side the eggs, pieced gently and carefully on the bottom half of each biscuit.
We ate them and we smiled. And then we had more.
I know that cafe is still out there. A place that good doesn’t just go under. Maybe I’ll find it again. Maybe I won’t. But I’ve got more ham in the freezer and ambition to straighten out my biscuit game – and so getting back there isn’t quite as urgent anymore. Just as long as I can get back down there and get me another one of those hams. This time, most certainly, with my wife’s blessing.