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Ghosts in the Ham House

Country hams are a religion in the South, and the Newsom family are its prophets.

"Country hams are to fresh pork what long-aged cheeses are to fresh milk: a distillation, an expression of the transforming powers of salt, enzymes, and time."

Nancy Newsom Mahaffey, better known as the Ham Lady, asked her son to fetch a ham down from the ham house. It was mid-September, a warm, sunny day at the end of an uncharacteristically cool summer. The leaves had not yet begun to turn, and Nancy hadn’t sold a single ham since July. That’s when the very last of the aged country hams she reserves for restaurants were shipped out to the three places on her list that hadn’t yet received theirs: 610 Magnolia in Louisville, Celeste in Chicago, and Zingerman’s Roadhouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Other customers hadn’t been able to get their hands on a ham since January, when the last of the previous year’s batch sold out. It had been a cool summer, so this year’s hams—a good 3000 of them currently aging in her ham houses—were a few weeks overdue, and would likely need to hang a few weeks more. This made Nancy anxious.

It was a typical day at Newsom’s Old Mill Store, which since 1917 has been open on East Main Street in downtown Princeton, Kentucky. Customers wandered in asking after the country ham, and each time they got a polite no from Nancy and had to settle for something else. Maybe they’d go for some of the last few slices of her twenty-one-month prosciutto-style ham, or some tangy, sagey souse on whole wheat, or maybe the hickory-smoked, unaged Preacher hams ("nothin’ but the best for the preacher on Sunday," reads Newsom’s yearly newsletter), of which the store had plenty in stock. But they always started out wanting the country ham.

That burnished, mahogany-colored haunch Nancy had her son bring down wasn’t for the customers, though. Once it came in from the ham house, it sat for a while in the back room behind the meat counter until Lonnie Robinson, a Newsom’s employee of some forty-odd years, got around to pushing the power button on the steely, hulking vertical meat saw that had been employed by the business about a decade longer than he had. Nancy gripped the leathery joint at its butt end and at the bone and pushed it horizontally against the blade. The room was immediately perfumed with a whiff of smoke and pork as the ham split cleanly in half across its thickest diameter, exposing its rosy, fat-marbled interior and the pink marrow of the bone. Nancy peered at it appraisingly. "This is still a little bit young looking," she said to the assembled group. "It doesn’t have that deep robust burgundy color."

Robinson took a few slices off the edge, and placed them in a skillet set over a hot plate. They sizzled for a few minutes until the fat ran clear off the rind. He passed bites of the ham around to me, Nancy, and Nancy’s friend Anita Baker, the news editor at Caldwell County’s twice-weekly Times Leader, who moonlights in the store and plans to spend her upcoming retirement working there.

The flavor of that ham—a particular alchemy of sugar, salt, pork, smoke, heat, humidity, mold, and time—sent shivery jolts of pleasure down the backs of my legs, but to Nancy, it wasn’t yet as good as it could be. "I think they’re almost ready," she said of the hams in the ham house, "if we sell the smaller ones. If anybody asks for one seventeen pounds and up, they’re not going to get them." (That test ham, however, eventually was sliced and sold to customers who couldn’t wait, with the careful warning that it was younger than it should be.)

After the taste test, Nancy returned to doing what she mostly does during the comparatively slow—but still plenty busy—season before the holiday ham crush: running around the store attending to a thousand minor tasks, all the while chatting up her customers, rewarding them frequently with bursts of her loud and contagious laughter. In the space of an hour, she took orders for nearly a dozen sandwiches, arranged to make some gift baskets for a community Christmas pageant, promised to donate a ham for a church raffle, found a ride home for an older customer who had too much to carry, and set up a family with a platter of Preacher ham for a funeral.

"I’ve had people tell me that when they see me they automatically get hungry for ham," Nancy said to me at one point. Customer John Figert, who was waiting for some Preacher ham slices, agreed: "I look at Nancy and my mouth waters."

At the age of 59, Nancy has a superhuman sense for ham. She can tell exactly how old a ham is just by tasting it, and her sense of smell is keen as a hound’s. I first visited Newsom’s seven years ago, part of a ham odyssey through western Kentucky with some friends. That morning we’d been to the Trigg County Country Ham Festival, home to the world’s largest country ham biscuit. Afterward, we visited a ham house belonging to Broadbent's, a relatively large country ham producer that was then located in nearby Cadiz, Kentucky. Newsom’s was our third stop, and as we chatted with Nancy in the store, no one wanted to admit that hers wasn’t our first ham experience of the day. One of us let it slip, though, and immediately she said she’d known something wasn’t right from the moment we walked in. She grabbed my friend Peter by the collar and sniffed his shirt. "I smell the smoke on you," she said. "I’m like a dog."

Even the most modest country ham issues a powerful hold on the Southern psyche, a delicious artifact of history and place.

Nancy is the third generation producing what is officially known as Col. Bill Newsom’s Aged Kentucky Country Hams, but which most people just reverently refer to as Newsom’s. For nearly a century, the family has aged and sold what would come be to be considered America’s king of country ham, our domestic analogue to Spain’s jamón ibérico, Italy’s prosciutto, or China’s Xuanwei ham.

"One of the first hams I tasted when I arrived in Kentucky ten years ago was Nancy's," says chef Edward Lee, who serves her products at both of his Louisville restaurants, 610 Magnolia and MilkWood. "It was so impressive, so different and amazing, that I swore I'd never use prosciutto again."

Country ham is something simultaneously very simple and very special. It’s salt-cured and often smoked, and then aged for a period of months, during which time the meat loses a portion of its water weight, intensifying the flavor and taking on a chewy density. Depending on where you are and who’s making the ham, the basic recipe might vary—some saltpeter, pepper, or mustard in the cure, for example, or smoking the hams over different types of wood—but the one unifying characteristic of country hams, from Virginia to North Carolina to Tennessee to Kentucky, is their intensity, their salt, their funk. Also universal is the intangible fact that, despite the relative rarity of versions as exquisite as Newsom’s, even the most modest country ham issues a powerful hold on the Southern psyche, a delicious artifact of history and place.

The technique of dry-curing and smoking hams itself is not unique to the American South—the Roman-era Gauls knew how to do it, and Cato the Elder recorded a recipe in his circa 160 BCE essay On Agriculture that called for stacking them and burying them in salt, wiping them clean and hanging them in the wind, smoking them for two days, and rubbing them with vinegar and oil. He instructed the prospective ham curer to "then hang them in the meat house, and neither bats nor worms will touch them."

The British colonists adapted for pork the long-curing methods Native Americans were applying to fish and venison. The resulting haunches were the very first country hams.

Cured and smoked ham became an essential—and ubiquitous—part of the European culinary tradition, but American country ham as we know it was a colonial adaptation of Native American techniques. In the early seventeenth century, pigs in Jamestown, Virginia, were kept in an area called Hog Island, in what would later be called Surry County—still considered ground zero for American country ham. There, the British colonists adapted for pork the long-curing methods Native Americans were applying to fish and venison—the resulting haunches were the very first country hams.

The long cure, long smoke, and long aging process resulted in a ham that was so well preserved that it could be stored almost indefinitely. And so, in short order, this style of ham making spread all over the South. The North was not so lucky: New England’s more temperate climate worked against the country ham technique, which requires both winters warm enough that the hams don’t freeze and a balmy summer climate that's ideal for initiating what Nancy calls the "July sweats," when the ham expands and takes in some of the benevolent white mold that coats it.

The Newsom family has been making aged country hams since the middle of the seventeenth century, after they’d emigrated from England and settled in Surry County. After receiving a land grant for service in the Revolutionary War, the Newsom family moved to western Kentucky in 1823. They brought their ham curing practice with them. They were farmers and slave owners, and they slaughtered their own hogs and aged their own hams, not for some rarefied gourmet treat or to sell, but for survival during the winter, just as their neighbors did.

It took another 150 years for the family’s hams to achieve the rarified status of culinary national treasure. In 1975, Newsom’s was just a quiet country store: Nancy’s father sold seed and fertilizer to local farmers, and flowers, produce, and fresh meat to the people of Princeton. Aged country hams were just a small part of the business, in part because many locals were still curing, smoking, and aging their own. But then James Beard, who’d been writing favorably about Virginia’s Smithfield hams (a name now associated with massive concentrated animal feeding operations, but at the time a smaller specialty producer) got a recommendation from a reader who was a former Princeton resident.

"She wrote, ‘You’ve never had a true aged ham until you have one of Bill Newsom’s aged hams,’" recalls Nancy. Beard called the little store and ordered a ham from the colonel. And then he called back, again and again. "He would call Dad at his home and they would discuss aged hams," Nancy says. "He would ask ‘What stage are they at? What’s going on with them now?’"

Beard first wrote about Colonel Newsom’s hams in American Airlines’ in-flight magazine, and then wrote about them again and again in his syndicated newspaper column and in his books. A collective infatuation for the hams among chefs and food writers was initiated, a mail-order business was born, and Newsom’s hasn’t been able to keep up with demand ever since.

Nancy would like to meet the market, to produce enough that she won’t sell out each season, and have product available year-round, but she’s committed to slow growth, the kind of deliberate scale that allows her to maintain the same traditional process her ancestors used when they started curing hams in Virginia a third of a millennium ago.

She’s committed to slow growth, the kind of deliberate scale that allows her to maintain the same process her ancestors used a third of a millennium ago.

She is purposefully vague about the minutiae of her methods, but the Newsom's multimonth process begins in the winter, when the individual hams are massaged by hand with salt and sugar—no nitrates—before they’re hung in the ham houses and gently smoked over hickory chunks and sawdust smoldering in an iron kettle. They’re smoked in twenty-four-hour periods over three to four weeks, with each ham going through the smoke up to twenty-five times depending on the weather. (Smoking hams doesn’t just contribute to their fine flavor; it also inhibits the development of microbes that can make the meat go rancid.) When the hams have taken on a rich, dark color, they’re left to hang in the dark ham houses, which have no artificial climate control. There, they swelter in Kentucky’s hot, humid summer; this is when they lose water weight, shrinking and intensifying in flavor, and develop a harmless coat of fuzzy white mold.

It wasn't until Nancy’s grandfather, H.C. Newsom, opened the family’s general store in 1917 that the family sold any of their hams, and even then, they didn’t sell very many. "My granddaddy tried to develop something for every season," says Nancy of the family’s sales strategy. That meant stocking plants and seeds in the spring—"the biggest moneymaker of their year," she says—fruits and vegetables in the summer and fall, and hams in the winter. There were crackers in barrels, sorghum molasses in sacks, and if a customer bought a certain amount of groceries, Newsom would reward him with a full set of new dishes. (The spirit of the general store still suffuses the operation: Nancy stores her receipts in a collection of old five-gallon metal cans out of which her grandfather sold lard.)

H.C. Newsom died of cirrhosis of the liver at age forty-nine. A devout Baptist, he never drank a drop, but the pesticide he had applied to his plants for years contained lead arsenate, so potent that years of gloveless applications had stained his hands red. His son Bill, who was only eighteen when his father died, took over the operation. Bill was an outsize character with an impish sense of humor, a vocabulary as salty as his hams, and no great love for local politicians. When the city converted Main to a one-way street in the early 1950s, he protested by driving down to the store in the early mornings wearing nothing but boxers and black shoes with black socks.

In 1963, when Nancy was eight, the state recognized Bill’s hams by awarding him the honorary title of Kentucky Colonel, a civilian designation most famously held by KFC's Harlan Sanders. (Nancy is also a Kentucky Colonel; she was bestowed her honor in 2002). That same year, noticing that fewer people were curing their own hams at home, he deduced that more would want to buy them, so he built a new cinderblock smokehouse on the edge of some woods down the road that could hold up to a thousand hams at a time.

Nancy had no plans to become one of the last keepers of the country ham tradition. By the time James Beard first wrote about her father’s hams, Nancy was no longer living in Kentucky. She’d married at nineteen and moved to Havana, Illinois ("It was colder than crap," she says), where her husband had found work as journeyman carpenter. She learned how to sew curtains and got used to the unfamiliar accents. "I moved up there among the Northerners and I had to talk different," she says.

When she became pregnant with her daughter in 1977, Nancy's husband decided he wanted his baby born in a Southern state, so they moved back home to Princeton. She began working for her father, curating his rapidly growing mail-order list. In the aftermath of Beard’s blessing, Newsom’s had received some 3000 inquiries about the hams, and Nancy kept the names and addresses on three-by-five note cards. Everyone who’d bought a ham—or simply asked about buying one—received a yearly newsletter, written by Nancy and signed by Colonel Bill Newsom.

"I used to have to prove myself when I’d get around these produce people. They weren’t going to cut me any slack because I was a woman. Hell no!"

She embarked on weekly produce buying trips with the colonel, who had slowed down considerably after undergoing triple-bypass heart surgery just a few months after her return home. They covered hundreds of miles a week, and Nancy did most of the heavy lifting, figuratively and literally. "I used to have to prove myself when I’d get around these produce people," she says. "They weren’t going to cut me any slack because I was a woman. Hell no! Daddy and I are driving back from Hopkinsville. He sees a load of pumpkins on a wagon. He buys them. He’s had heart surgery. He’s not well. He has Parkinson’s. Who do you think loaded them?"

The trips were tough, but they taught Nancy how to be a woman in the largely male world of grocery retail and wholesale. "I used to go down to this place in Nashville and they would kind of just stare at me and be real macho," she recalls. "I had to just load that truck and pull my own weight, and the men would just stand there and watch me. Well, I never acted like I let it bother me—I just kept working. And eventually, they came around to where they wouldn’t let me touch a single box." The produce buying trips also cemented her integrity: "Some of my hardest lessons about honesty came from the produce business. You buy a basket of beans and you turn your head, they might give you a different one."

James Beard couldn't have catapulted Newsom’s country hams to stardom at a better time. In the late seventies, Wal-Mart, which by then had more than 100 stores, landed in Princeton, never a positive development for a small town’s mom-and-pop stores. "We used to sell thousands of dollars of Holland flower bulbs," Nancy says of the family business before the big-box stores came. "We had a man that had his own farm over there. He’d come over from Holland every Christmas and take Daddy’s order. We were selling huge bulbs that made huge blooms. When Wal-Mart came in, they started selling these packaged bulbs at cheaper prices, and people went for price instead of service and quality."

As the Newsoms were gradually forced to stop selling bulbs—not to mention rosebushes, mulch, and potting soil—Nancy started thinking about all those people in New York, California, and Florida who were mailing in checks to buy her father's hams. She thought about the people her store was selling to now, customers they were losing to a massive national corporation whose buying power was impossible to compete with, and she starting thinking of ways to target a different kind of customer. Newsom’s started selling gift baskets filled with vacuum-sealed ham slices, proprietary pickles and preserves, and regional treats like peanut brittle, peppermint pillows, and Mom Blakeman’s creamed pull candy to customers hundreds—often thousands—of miles away, whose faces Nancy never saw. It was a wild success. "I made 800 baskets myself one time," she says. "I had to go get a shot for tennis elbow."

Nancy sees providence in the mysteries and miracles of everyday life. One predawn morning in 1987, a fire broke out in the store, destroying nearly everything. All that was left was a framed painting of a pig, that ancient meat saw, and a wooden butcher block they’re still using today. Somehow, the store’s mail-order contacts—still organized the way Nancy did it originally, on handwritten three-by-five notecards—were saved when a bottle of detergent toppled into the box where they were stored, coating the paper and protecting the ink script from the firefighter’s water.

"I worked with the men in the ham house, and then I asked Daddy a few key questions, and for the rest I kind of flew by the seat of my pants."

The hams, of course, were safe in the ham house not far away and came out of the ordeal unscathed. But otherwise the store was a total loss, and her father wanted to cash out. "After we had that big fire he didn’t want anything to do with the business," says Nancy. "But it was time to start selling hams in the fall! He says, 'We’re not opening up another retail store.’ I said, ‘Daddy, you’ve got a ham house full of hams. We’ve got to open up somewhere.’ He says, ‘Well, then you do it.’ And I said, ‘Okay, I will.’"

Nancy moved what little remained into a defunct flour mill next door and christened it Newsom's Old Mill Store. "I cried all fall and December," she says. She didn’t have much to sell besides the hams, but she had pecans and walnuts and bulk candies in Ziploc bags. She had mums too, and one day she took a pair and placed one on each side of the boarded-up, burned-out basement. Before she could get back down the street, a neighbor shouted after her that he wanted to buy them. It happened again when she replaced the flowers, and again after that. "People in town were trying to find anything to buy from us," she says. "That helped me realize that I can’t decide for us to not be on Main. The symbolism of those mums was what started my thoughts about continuing to be in business." After the busy holiday season, it was time to start the cure for the next year's batch. Nancy got down in the ham house with the workers and pitched in.

Bill Newsom had never taught his daughter the family’s method for curing hams—"he didn’t want me to work hard like he worked hard," Nancy says—so it was up to her to figure things out herself. "I worked with the men in the ham house, and then I asked Daddy a few key questions, and for the rest I kind of flew by the seat of my pants. I didn’t convince him to let me do it. I just took over."

Aging hams isn't a fast or easy process, especially when—like the Newsoms—you don’t use the quick-cure methods that larger producers use, like adding nitrates and nitrites to the cure (which turns the meat pink and adds flavor, in addition to serving as preservatives), or tumbling the hams in machines to apply the cure instead of doing it more thoroughly by hand, or using artificial climate control. At peak operation, a large-scale ham producer like Smithfield can churn out tens of thousands of hams per six-month production cycle, with several cycles going at once.

In contrast, the Newsom way—all done with human hands and natural air—takes at least nine months from start to finish. It begins with the hams, which arrive as "city hams," uncooked and uncured haunches from standard factory hogs. Nancy notes the starting weight of a few hams out of the lot, which she uses as a benchmark to track shrinkage over the months. (The USDA requires hams to lose at least 18 percent of their weight before they can be called "country hams.") Then she and her guys use their hands to massage sugar and salt into each individual ham for about ten minutes apiece; the hams are then "laced" onto oak shelves, fitted like puzzle pieces and stacked more than twenty feet high. Over the weeks the hams will be taken down, washed, rerubbed and relaced up to three more times. After a final wash, the hams are placed in individual netted bags and hung to dry from tall wooden racks in the smoking room. As the spring weather turns, they’re gently bathed in hickory smoke—preferably on cool, low-humidity days—for as long as it takes for them to achieve Nancy’s preferred deep mahogany color, usually three or four weeks.

Once the smoking is over, a more intuitive process begins. During Kentucky’s warmest, muggiest months, Nancy watches the weather. Depending on conditions, she opens or covers vents on the ham house walls to maintain the ideal levels of heat and humidity that encourage the hams to shrink. She doesn’t worry about trying to maintain an exact temperature; "it’s kind of a feel that we go with," she says. By the end of the process, usually mid-September, though it can be later—like this year, which has been cool—her hams have shrunk by anywhere from 24 to 36 percent from their original weights, and the flavor has transformed from unremarkable raw commodity pork to the intense, complex, salty, nutty, funky, fruity apex of a pig’s potential.

Curing hams in this way is a disappearing craft, and Nancy knows it. So do her customers. "I can’t tell you how many people in here tell me, ‘I used to help my granddaddy cure hams. I just never paid attention to what he was doing,’" she says. "And they lost how to do it."

Nancy’s fans tend to use rapturous language to describe her family’s preservation of this process, and consider Newsom’s hams not just a delicious product, but an artifact of a lost way of life. "They’re more than just hams," says chef Edward Lee, one of her most vocal supporters (he’s such a fan that she’s quoted in his cookbook). "They are a narrative, a history, and a tradition. They allow us to look back into the past to guide our future. We need these institutions in our culture."

"They’re more than just hams. They are a narrative, a history, and a tradition. They allow us to look back into the past to guide our future."

T.J. Harville, the sous chef at the Chicago restaurant Celeste and a Kentucky native, had his first taste of Newsom’s ham at a family Thanksgiving years ago. Where he’s from, no one eats country ham "raw," in the thin, prosciutto-style slices in which it’s often served in restaurants. Traditionally, folks soak it in several changes of water, simmer it for hours, and then bake it and slice it. A few years ago, Harville made a pilgrimage to Princeton, and Nancy spent hours talking to him and showing him around the ham houses.

"You can actually taste the hundreds of years of history in every one of her hams," says Harville, who includes Newsom’s product on a Kentucky ham plate served at Celeste. "They have such a unique, complex flavor," the kind you can’t get from conventional, artificially climate-controlled aging. Harville knows that the secret ingredient is, in short, Nancy herself: "She has the patience and passion to let the hams be perfect before she sends them out, and she only makes a certain amount. She could be making millions and millions, but her quality over quantity mindset and her customer service–focused attitude keep them perfect every time."

Nancy won't share the exact location of her second ham house (she made me promise not to reveal much beyond the fact that it's within a few blocks of the store), and she carries around eight different sets of keys, many of which no longer open anything. That’s for security. "There are meth addicts around," she says, "and they’ll steal anything." If one of the key rings falls into the wrong hands, it’s unlikely the thief will know what to do with it. No one’s stolen a ham from Nancy so far, but then again, it takes even Nancy some time to find the right keys for the ham house. Whenever she does eventually open the door, she ducks in quickly to maintain the temperature inside the soaring space. The hams dangle from towering wooden racks all the way up to the twenty-foot ceiling, suffusing the dark room with a narcotic bouquet of smoke, funk, meat, and age.

Most of the haunches in the ham house are the standard Newsom’s country ham, but also among the thousands of hanging legs are limited-edition versions made from pastured pigs, and elongated, European-like hams that will age for twenty-one months, the trotters still attached, Spanish style. Nancy jokes that she’ll paint the trotters’ nails red for Christmas.

She believes the flavor of her hams is influenced by factors that are less measurable than heat, humidity, and weight: the trees, the air quality, the slow waters of Big Spring, a freshwater trickle that runs out of a limestone cave behind the newer ham house she built two years ago. She’s suspicious of the limestone, not sure whether it’s a good thing or bad thing to have around. She’s certain about one thing though: the hams in the new structure don’t taste quite the same as those from the one her father built, because the ambient white fuzzy molds that cover the hams when they’re properly aged haven’t had as much time to establish themselves in the building.

There’s another thing about the older ham house that’s quite a bit different than the newer one. Colonel Bill Newsom died in 1999, the same year that Nancy and her husband divorced, and that her youngest, John, left home for college. Nancy was living alone for the first time in her life. "It left me kind of having to develop a new identity," she says. "My kids didn’t know who I was. I don’t know that I knew who I was."

In the midst of this crisis, some odd things began happening around Bill’s old ham house. One day, she says, she was starting a fire with an old-timer employee, when the flames suddenly leapt up high of their own accord. "He just laughed," Nancy recalls. "He said, ‘You got some help today.’" The mysterious firestarter helped out a few more times. Nancy is a believer: "I know that there are things that we don’t know. I don’t know if my father was actually ready to leave me when he left."

After the colonel died, workers in the prep room would claim to hear the outside door slam right around the time Bill usually came by to pay a visit. Hams began to inexplicably fall from high on the lacing racks to the center of the floor. Lights would go off and on independently. "I came down here one night and as I was leaving it was like somebody was standing behind me and I saw a shape in my mind’s eye," says Nancy of one particularly vivid incident. "The hair was long. This didn’t feel like a woman. It was like something took a piggyback ride in on my Daddy. It came to the point that there were so many things going on up here that were unexplained that I stood right here in the breezeway and screamed: ‘I don’t know who the hell you are, but I am not leaving here, so you can just go away!’"

With hindsight, Nancy takes these supernatural incidents philosophically. "I was in a very transitory part of life. I was going through a lot of soul changes," she says. "And I think that’s when these unusual things can sometimes happen to you. That’s when you’re more susceptible to things of that nature." The strange events eventually tapered off, but Nancy says she still has lighting problems around the ham house that no inspection of the wiring can explain.

James Beard was the first writer to pay tribute to Newsom’s hams, but he wasn’t the last. In the decades since Nancy’s been running the show, there has been a steady stream of attention from national media that has helped to sustain the mail-order business, raising Nancy’s profile in the process. Newsom’s hams have been the subject of odes in publications from Food & Wine to Esquire to the New York Times. In his 2005 book Pig Perfect, Peter Kaminsky devoted a chapter to Nancy, writing of her hams: "To this day, they set the bar for America. In Spain, her hams would be a million-dollar business. Here she just gets by."

It’s difficult to imagine anyone but a Newsom shouldering the fourth generation of this responsibility.

As her fame has grown, Nancy has found herself entertaining a continuous succession of chefs and food writers on pilgrimages, not just seeking out hams, but to soak up her effortless Southern charm and reinforce a connection to the kinds of lost foodways they’d like to bring back themselves. Her undeniable charisma has led to invitations to speak at conferences and ham tastings. One of the greatest honors in her eyes was an invitation to the Fifth World Congress of Dry Cured Hams in Aracena, Spain, in 2009. "I sent about a seventeen-pound free-range ham over there," she says, and it still hangs under glass at the city’s Museo del Jamón, where it’s identified as one of the greatest hams in the world.

It isn’t all red-eye gravy. "Hard work will keep you humble," Nancy likes to say, and while that might not be true for everyone, it’s true for her. She works hard. She certainly is humble. She picks up the phone herself and takes orders for sandwiches and hams. She has diabetes, fibromyalgia, and high blood pressure, and the combination of medications she takes and the effect of constant motion sometimes leaves her mind foggy and always leaves her body dead tired at the end of the day. Her thirty-four-year-old son, John, has become more involved in the business over the years, but he’s not ready to take it over yet, and isn’t entirely sure he wants to.

Nancy’s told her kids that if something happens to her and they don’t want to keep the ham business going, they should sell it, and she’s made a list of potential buyers. "Get ahold of some of these New York chefs and writers and food groups," she says she’s told them. But it’s difficult to imagine anyone but a Newsom shouldering the fourth generation of this responsibility.

But all that is farther down the road. Right now, it’s autumn, and there are hams to attend to. The first of this year’s were ready to go in the first week of October, the rest followed a couple of weeks later. They’re already going fast and will probably sell out again by June. Nancy doesn’t have much time to think of a way to sell hams year-round without compromising her methods—or whether her methods will even survive her—but it’s on her mind. But her principles are clear: "It’s about being better at what you do instead of huger," says Nancy. "It’s the quality of that ham. It’s got to taste exactly as it tasted as a child when it went on the table at Christmas dinner. That is my tribute to my daddy."

Mike Sula is a senior writer at the Chicago Reader. His story "Chicken of the Trees," about eating city squirrels, won a 2013 James Beard Foundation Award for food journalism
Photographer: Rick Smith
Editor: Helen Rosner


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