|clockwise from top left: view of the James River from the lodge at Aberdeen Farm, "Magnolia" of Smithfield's Porcine Parade, A cotton field in Smithfield county, P.D. Gwaltney, Jr. House|
Recently I was treated to a whirlwind 48 hour adventure in which I glimpsed the rich history and culture of Smithfield, Virginia. Before my trip, when I heard the word Smithfield, I associated it with ham. I think that's a pretty appropriate reaction to a town that is home to the world's oldest ham, a porcine parade, and thick humid air that delivers the scent of smoked ham to your senses the moment you step foot in town.
While the Isle of Wight County that Smithfield sits in has a population of approximately 35,000, the town itself only has about 8,000 residents—and after visiting you'd swear that every last one of them knows each other. Or at least, they know if you're not one of them as they welcome you with true Southern hospitality.
While in Smithfield, I stayed at the quaint Smithfield Inn, a Bed & Breakfast that has been there since 1752. As a matter of fact, George Washington walked the same halls that I did during my stay (coincidentally, I stayed in the George Washington Suite). Along with the warm atmosphere of the restaurant and tavern, there is a cozy sitting room and 5 suites inside the main house; out back the Garden House contains 3 more rooms. I loved the prominent front porch with wooden rockers that was perfect for relaxing (you know, if I'd had some time to relax) with an icy cold glass of lemonade or iced tea.
Just a short walk from the Inn sits the Isle of Wight County Museum were you can find all sorts of fun history about the county. Here you can learn about the native Warascoyak Tribe that the lived in this area when the settlers happened upon it due to its proximity to a navigable body of water, which made it the perfect location for trade and travel (to keep close ties with settlers families in Barbados, Bermuda, and Scotland). In 1637, Isle of Wight (so named because the English couldn't say or spell Warascoyak) became of the 8 original Colonial shires.
If you're anything like me, your mind just went directly to Hobbits.
That's just the tip of the spear. You'd be amazed at all the knowledge housed in this small building. It also houses the world's oldest peanut that was grown by A.B. Stott in 1890. P.D. Gwaltney Sr. (aka the Peanut King) picked and dated it in 1890, then used it to advertise his peanut business.
Now, the name Gwaltney became one I would get to know well as the town's focus shifted from peanuts to pork with Gwaltney Jr. Just as the museum houses the oldest peanut in the world, it also houses the oldest ham in the world...which also happened to be Gwaltney Jr's "pet ham". For real. He even had a collar made for it. It was his pride and joy and he took it EVERYWHERE with him. You know, sat for pictures with it. All the things that proud pet owners do.
How did happen? Well, in 1902 a cured ham was overlooked and hung from a rafter in one of Gwaltney Jr's packing houses for 20 years. Within a couple of years, he'd had an iron safe made that he kept his ham in, and he would open it daily for visitors to view. He took this as an opportunity to show off the preservative powers of his smoking method. So, he fashioned the brass collar for his pet ham and then took it with him to expos and shows and advertised it as the world's oldest Smithfield ham.
The ham was featured in Ripley's "Believe It Or Not" in 1929, 1932, and again in 2003. You can get a live look at this ham 24 hours a day by clicking through to the Ham Cam!
Even though I'm not a fan of the disgustingly hot and sticky heat that hung in the air, one of my favorite parts of the trip was the short historic walking tour, led by Kathy Mountjoy of the Smithfield Visitors Burea. Now, Kathy is as entertaining as she is knowledgeable, so this tour is a must-see part of any trip to Smithfield (which incidentally is the #1 daytrip destination from Colonial Williamsburg).
The walking tour includes a blend of 18th century Colonial, Federal, Georgian, and Victorian period houses and buildings sitting side by side along the Pagan River in perfect harmony. Among these houses are 15 that date to the 18th century and 10 that pre-date the Revolutionary War. Beautifully kept and restored, these houses have a way of pulling you back in time as you gaze at their grandeur.
|Enjoy a walking tour of downtown Smithfield with Kathy Mountjoy of the Smithfield Visitors Bureau.|
Another highlight of my time in Smithfield was the tour of the Smithfield Smokehouse. Cameras weren't allowed, so I can't show you what it looked like, but I'll tell you that it was spectacular. Behind dark wooden doors and walls thick with the scent of many years of smoke were thousands of hams hanging from rafters. I was able to see them in several states—from the initial hanging to halfway through to the ones that were done smoking and hanging and ready to be packaged and sent out to your local market.
One whiff of the air behind those closed smokehouse doors was all it took to set my cheeks a-tingling in anticipation.
And although you wouldn't be able to tell by what I've told you so far, Smithfield Foods is more than just ham. As a matter of fact, they're motto is "Everthing But The Squeal". On our final afternoon there, I was thrilled to see a whole half of a pig being broken down into smaller cuts. You may not know that when I was going through my butchery unit during my apprenticeship while in culinary school, I myself broke down a whole pig...but it was a much, much smaller one that we saw broken down that day (and that was only once, 15 years ago).
From everybody's favorite cut (seen below - bacon from the belly) to the lesser known ones, it's super informative to see a pig broken down from start to finish, and really helps you appreciate the food that you're putting into your body and the animal that gave its life so you could eat.
Do you know which part of the pig your favorite cuts come from? Check out this Know Your Parts Diagram from Smithfield Foods to learn more.
I was thoroughly fascinated by the history of the town and how it is so interwoven with its culture still today. Everywhere I went, I'd see some small symbol of the pride in the town. You can't really see them in that photo of Kathy above, but she had on the cutest little winged pig earrings. Everywhere I turned there were pigs (with and without wings).
I haven't mentioned it yet, but we at like kings on this trip. Not only was I never hungry, I was always stuffed.
On our final full evening there, we were treated to a whole roasted pig feast that included hands-down THE BEST collard greens I've ever eaten in my life and a wine tasting that included a bunch of wines made right there in Virginia. It was rainy and bordering on hurricane weather (really) the whole time we were there, but when we first arrived at the gorgeous lodge on Aberdeen Farm, where our dinner was being hosted that evening, we were treated to the most stunning view overlooking the James River from the back deck where our food was being set up. And then the skies opened up and we had to move the feast inside.
While there, we also ate at the restaurant in the Smithfield Inn, The Smithfield Gourmet Bakery and Café, Smithfield Station, and the Taste of Smithfield. Was I required to order pork? Nope. Did I do it anyway. Oh yeah!
|Pork Wing, Fresh Pork Skins, and a Sweet Potato Ham Biscuit from Taste of Smithfield|
One of my favorite eating experiences happened at the restaurant inside Taste of Smithfield, Smithfield Foods' flagship store offering fresh southern fare featuring Smithfield's signature products, as well as Virginia wines and micro-brews, and a ham shop. Fresh cracklins, pork wings (what!?), and the unassuming thing that won my heart—their sweet potato ham biscuit. I tried other ham biscuits while in Virginia, but these specifically were my personal favorite.
At first bite, I wasn't sure I was going to like it because the biscuit itself was particularly sweet with a bit of spice, but then I wanted to take another bite...and another. The sweet, spicy biscuit and the salty Smithfield country ham whispered to each other like besties in the schoolyard. I still can't stop thinking about them.
They were very soft and more like a fantastic scone or even a super-soft cookie. I kick myself daily for not trying to talk to the kitchen...see if they'd share their recipe.
So, obviously I had to try recreating them myself. I didn't have much luck. At least not yet. I mean, there's nothing wrong with the sweet potato biscuits I'm sharing here today, there's actually a whole lot that's right with them—like warm spice and the scent of orange that permeate eat bite. They make a great "in the meantime" substitute while I continue my mission to figure out how to make those incredible Taste of Smithfield sweet potato biscuits.
And this probably goes without saying, but if you know anybody who has the recipe, I'd love you forever if you could get it for me.
Sweet Potato Ham Biscuits
Soft, lightly spiced sweet potato biscuits filled with country ham make a great meal, snack, or appetizer.
Prep Time: 10 minutes (active) + 1 hour (inactive)
Cook Time: 15 minutes
Keywords: bake appetizer bread sandwich ham sweet potatoes Southern
Ingredients (serves 12)
- 1 cup pureed cooked sweet potato
- 1/2 cup (4 ounces / 1 stick / 8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted
- 1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 3 tablespoons packed brown sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 3/4 teaspoon fine salt
- 1/2 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice (cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, allspice, ginger, cloves)
- 2/3 cup buttermilk
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 15 ounces of Smithfield Country ham (or your favorite), thinly sliced
Combine sweet potatoes, melted butter, and orange zest in a large bowl and mix well to combine.
Sift together the flour, brown sugar, baking powder, salt, and spice together in a medium bowl.
Stir the buttermilk and baking soda together in a small bowl or measuring cup.
Add the dry mixture and the buttermilk to the sweet potato mixture, alternating (starting and ending with the dry mixture), using a wooden spoon or your fingers to stir until just combined.
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 425° F. Grease two baking sheets or line them with parchment paper; set aside.
Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and pat to 1/2-inch thickness. Use a 3-inch ring to cut into rounds; place on prepared baking sheet. Gather scraps and re-work.
Slide the trays into the preheated oven and bake for 15 minutes, switching the pans from top to bottom and front to back halfway through, or until they just begin to turn golden around the bottom edges where the biscuit sits on the pan. Transfer the biscuits to a wire rack to cool.
When the biscuits have cooled, slice them in half so that you have a top and a bottom. Pile about 1 1/4 ounces of the sliced ham into each biscuit.
-inspired by and adapted from The Smithfield Cookbook: Continuing Traditions
I hope you enjoyed a little glimpse in to the town and company by the same name that are incredibly rich in history and Southern charm!