Four gen­er­a­tions of preser­va­tion

As the smoke clears, Ed­wards pre­serves its his­tory

The Progress-Index Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - By Sarah Vo­gel­song Staff Writer

SURRY —Just north of where Route 10 col­lides with the old John Rolfe High­way in Surry County, a man and a woman are hav­ing lunch on the shaded porch of a red-sided build­ing em­bla­zoned with the words “VA HAM.” The af­ter­noon is hot and peace­ful, cars whip­ping past on their way to the Scot­land slip, where the ferry will take them across the James River to Jamestown.

In some ways, the Surry of 2017 is lit­tle changed from the Surry of 90 years ago. The ferry, now state-run, still serves as the only cross­ing of the James within 30 miles. Agri­cul­ture still plainly reigns over the life of the county seat, pop­u­la­tion 244. And peo­ple are still eat­ing ham sand­wiches made just beyond that town’s south­ern bound­ary at Ed­wards Vir­ginia Smoke­house, which this year cel­e­brates its 91st birth­day with a dis­tinctly non-lo­cal achieve­ment: in­duc­tion into the na­tional Spe­cialty Food Hall of Fame.

When Sa­muel Wallace Ed­wards Sr. started Ed­wards in 1926, “I don’t think he ever en­vi­sioned the com­pany would do what it’s be­come,” said his grand­son and cur­rent com­pany pres­i­dent, Sa­muel Wallace Ed­wards III.

As Ed­wards Vir­ginia Smoke­house moves fur­ther into the 21st cen­tury, the com­pany is find­ing that in many ways its strength lies in its deep roots in the past — even after a dev­as­tat­ing fire in Jan­uary 2016 de­stroyed much of the phys­i­cal ev­i­dence of those roots.

“It’s crazy how much we lost in the fire,” said Ed­wards. Be­sides 50,000 square feet of smoke­house, pro­cess­ing and ware­house space, much of it decades old, the blaze swal­lowed up old fam­ily jour­nals, fi­nan­cial records, pho­to­graphs and his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments, all of them price­less ar­ti­facts that can never be re­placed.

Still, Ed­wards has al­ways been more than just a phys­i­cal plant. Mark­ers of its pres­ence lit­ter the town of Surry in a county known pri­mar­ily for its an­nual Pork, Peanut and Pine Fes­ti­val. A nom­i­na­tion form for the ad­di­tion of the town to the Na­tional Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places makes par­tic­u­lar men­tion of Ed­wards as one of three lo­cal in­dus­tries that pro­duced the re­gion’s mid-cen­tury “com­mer­cial and res­i­den­tial build­ing boom.” And at the time of the fire, the busi­ness not only em­ployed 50 peo­ple — a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber in the thinly set­tled area — but was the ma­jor or sole pur­chaser of pork from al­most two dozen farms, leav­ing these small producers with no place to sell their prod­uct.

In the aftermath of the fire, Ed­wards has been scrap­ing by thanks to the aid of other smoke­houses, which have al­lowed the com­pany to cure its hams in their fa­cil­i­ties. Even that, how­ever, is fraught: over the years, smoke­houses lend their meats a dis­tinc­tive taste de­rived from the wood they burn and the smok­ing tech­niques they use. Pro­duc­ing the “Ed­wards fla­vor” takes not only hick­ory chips but also con­trol of a range of vari­ables from hu­mid­ity to air cir­cu­la­tion.

In a cruel twist, the clos­est Ed­wards was able to get to re­pro­duc­ing its char­ac­ter­is­tic fla­vor was at Harper’s Coun­try Ham in Clifton, Ky., which burned down in Fe­bru­ary 2017 in a blaze al­most iden­ti­cal to the one that lev­eled the Surry op­er­a­tion. At the time of the Ken­tucky fire, 6,000 of Ed­wards’ “Sur­ryano” hams, an 18- to 24-month-cured ham fea­tured on chef’s tables around the coun­try, were hang­ing in­side the smoke­house. They were all lost.

Still, tra­di­tion has a pow­er­ful way of lin­ger­ing, and while down for the count, Ed­wards Vir­ginia Smoke­house is by no means beaten. With the rise in in­ter­est in her­itage meats, char­cu­terie and butch­ery — trends that Ed­wards said he was “fas­ci­nated by” — food­ies and folks at home alike are tak­ing a re­newed in­ter­est in Vir­ginia’s most fa­mous prod­uct.

Sam Ed­wards III pos­ing for a photo in­side the aging room. [CON­TRIB­UTED PHOTO]

Sam Ed­wards III, right, stand­ing with his fa­ther, Wallace Ed­wards, in­side the aging room. [CON­TRIB­UTED PHOTO]

[CON­TRIB­UTED PHOTO] As Ed­wards Vir­ginia Smoke­house moves fur­ther into the 21st cen­tury, the com­pany is find­ing that in many ways its strength lies in its deep roots in the past — even after a dev­as­tat­ing fire in Jan­uary 2016 de­stroyed much of the phys­i­cal ev­i­dence of those roots.

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