Sunday, February 14, 2010

DREAM COME TRUE: The World's Oldest Edible Cured Ham

What better way to celebrate Valentine's Day than to drive five and a half hours through grueling post-snowstorm I95 traffic to a sparse and desolate village in southern Virginia to visit a museum dedicated to a ham? But not just any ham. THE WORLD'S OLDEST EDIBLE CURED HAM. And, as it turns out, the World's Largest Cured Ham, The World's Oldest Peanut, The World's Largest Ham Biscuit* (the asterisk means "just pictures, because we ate it several years ago"), and several other peanuts and hams that are not notable but are there because you can't create a museum out of just two hams and a peanut.

Those of you who know me will know that a pilgrimage to the Isle of Wight County Museum in Smithfield, Virginia--town motto: "hams, history, hospitality, and heart"--has been my wildest dream since I read about it on Roadside America nine months ago. I finally succeeded in convincing Matt to go this weekend (it was my Valentine's Day present to him! Kind of like the bowling ball Homer Simpson gave to Marge with his own name on it). And it. Was. Awesome.

A little back story:
This is Pembroke Decatur Gwaltney, Jr., scion of the Gwaltney Foods Empire. One hundred and eight years ago, he discovered and befriended a ham that his factory's shippers had accidentally left behind. He saved it, wanting to see how long the Gwaltney curing process would keep it "alive."

As the decades went by, he and the ham grew closer. He called it his pet. He bought it a brass collar. He insured it for $5,000. He took it to state fairs. Not a joke.

The ham lasted longer than he did. But the people of Smithfield have carried the torch of his devotion through the ages. Today, it's kept in the reverential silence of the three-room county museum, with veritable handfuls of people paying homage every month. A bored-looking seventy-year-old woman reading a book stands solitary guard, and also sells T-shirts and will take a picture of you with the ham if you ask nicely.

When you're done gazing at the ham, there's so much more to see. We had to pack it all into thirty minutes thanks to all the traffic jams on the way down. There's a peanut cured in 1890 by by Pembroke Decatur Gwaltney, père!

Photos and bios of beloved Gwaltney factory employees past and present, including this one of Dee Dee Darden!

A tapestry!

And finally the pièce de résistance: a full-room reproduction of a turn-of-the-century general store. Push a button that says "please only push once" and be instantly transported to the sights and sounds of a bygone era:


All in all, the Isle of Wight County Museum was beyond what I ever thought possible. Matt didn't quite feel the same way. He had come wanting to EAT the World's Oldest Edible Cured ham, or at least some kind of ham, and to our great dismay there was no ready-to-eat ham in the museum or on offer anywhere in the entire city. We visited all but one of the places on the Smithfield visitors' bureau's list of local restaurants that serve Smithfield Ham and discovered it was available...nowhere.

There were plenty of hams to buy at the Genuine Ham Shoppe, along with blueberry wine and peanut butter with cookie dough in it, but we were kind of just hoping to stuff a ham biscuit or two down our gobs and go. No luck. We had to content ourselves to carouse with the locals:

And enjoy the interesting wares in other shops:

We did find one restaurant that served delicious food in the end. But as we ate, we began to get this...weird feeling. Thirty-three percent of Smithfield's residents are minorities, but 100% of this restaurant's patrons, plus all the people in the posters, murals, and ads on the wall, were white. Then there was this sign:

That plus a recurring series of jokes about how they only offered "vanilla" ice cream = a very uneasy 45 minutes with our nachos and meatloaf.

...Umm.

SMITHFIELD BOTTOM LINE: Quaint, quiet, possibly a little racist in places, possibly not and I'm just being paranoid but come ON; lots of Southern hospitality; not enough ham made after 1902. And a county museum for the ages.

Cost of staying at the Smithfield Station "waterfront" hotel, and by waterfront they mean a small river: $130/night; cost of buying a t-shirt from the old lady at the museum to prove I'd been there $12; going on a V-Day adventure with Matty, meeting the ham of my dreams, having the t-shirt to prove it: worth all the MasterCard debt I accrued this weekend, and then some.

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