THE HAM LADY

WITH A WOMAN’S TOUCH IN A MALE­DOM­I­NATED CRAFT, NANCY NEW­SOM PRE­SERVES HER FAM­ILY’S GENERATIONSOLD TRA­DI­TION IN PRINCE­TON, KEN­TUCKY

Southern Living (USA) - - Contents - BY JENN IFER JUS­TUS PHO­TO­GRAPHS BY PETER FRANK ED­WARDS

Nancy New­som pre­serves a gen­er­a­tions-old fam­ily craft.

Six months be­fore Christ­mas, when her coun­try hams are about to un­dergo what she calls the “July sweats,” Nancy New­som stands in the back room of her shop, hold­ing an ice pick. She slides it into the meat of an aged ham, close to the bone, and then lifts the pick to her nose. To the layper­son, it might smell mostly of metal, but New­som can dis­tin­guish traces of sump­tu­ous funk cre­ated by weather, smoke, and time.

With a crumbly-look­ing brick wall be­hind her and wrin­kled, ruby-col­ored hams on a rough-hewn ta­ble in front of her, the scene could’ve been plucked from a small town in Spain or Italy. But this is Prince­ton, Ken­tucky, pop­u­la­tion 6,108. The New­som fam­ily has op­er­ated its gro­cery, seed, and ham busi­nesses along this sec­tion of the town’s Main Street since 1917. Many years ear­lier, one of New­som’s an­ces­tors moved the fam­ily to Ken­tucky on a Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War land grant from Vir­ginia by way of North Carolina.

Just as her fa­ther and grand­fa­ther cured hams be­fore her, New­som— known as the Ham Lady—will tinker with her hams many times dur­ing the cur­ing process. Af­ter she re­ceives fresh hams (some from her­itage breeds) from farms in Ken­tucky and Mis­souri, she mas­sages them with salt and brown sugar and then hangs them up to be smoked. As they age and lose mois­ture, they deepen in color; draw up in size; grow the fuzz of mold in some places; and take on a salty, deeply pun­gent fla­vor brought on by the whims of weather and the chang­ing sea­sons. Af­ter nearly a year in a cloudy haze and dark­ness, many of them make their grand de­buts dur­ing the hol­i­days. But even in the midst of a hot sum­mer, New­som is al­ready think­ing ahead. “Peo­ple don’t re­al­ize that their palates change with the sea­sons,” she says. “They might think that the busiest time for ham would be at Easter, but they want cured meat more in cooler tem­per­a­tures.”

While a woman in the com­mer­cial­ham busi­ness might seem un­usual, she chose this path de­spite her fa­ther’s sug­ges­tion (when she was 18) to con­sider sec­re­tar­ial school in­stead. She’s stuck with it through rais­ing chil­dren, divorce, and fire—and shrugs off the chal­lenges, say­ing the work comes nat­u­rally to her. While the men have tra­di­tion­ally han­dled the hog killing in the cooler weather, the women have cured.

NEW­SOM’S FIRST MEM­O­RIES OF

coun­try ham come with an aroma— the lin­ger­ing scent of a wood-fired fog that seeped into her fa­ther’s clothes. Although her par­ents are no longer around, that same smoke­house is in op­er­a­tion to­day, and the home in front of it, though of­ten un­oc­cu­pied, looks much as her par­ents left it. She can still point out the pat­terned blue china her mother would put on the ta­ble at Christ­mas. And while the dishes were filled with a plethora of sides—corn pud­ding, cran­berry sauce, cheese grits, or­ange-whipped con­gealed salad—the ham fanned out on a sil­ver plat­ter was the cen­ter­piece. “When I taste a ham at Christ­mas­time, I al­ways want it to be like what I had as a child,” she says. “I don’t know if we have im­proved any­thing over what my fa­ther did, but I know that we do it the same way.”

Although the fam­ily has been cur­ing hams and work­ing in the gen­eral store and gro­cery busi­ness for more than a cen­tury, the ham por­tion re­ally took off when one par­tic­u­lar food lover took an in­ter­est in their prod­uct and wrote about it for a 1975 is­sue of Amer­i­can Air­lines’ in-flight mag­a­zine. The writer’s name: James Beard.

“A cus­tomer from Prince­ton who lived in Vir­ginia got ahold of one of his books,” New­som says. “She wrote him a long let­ter and told him he hadn’t had a good ham un­til he’d had one of Col. Bill New­som’s hams.” Beard and New­som’s fa­ther struck up a friend­ship, and the famed chef, au­thor, and tele­vi­sion per­son­al­ity would phone him at home to talk shop. “He would call Dad when he was in his easy chair in the evening. James Beard would ask what stage the hams were in—he used our hams to teach with,” she re­calls.

New­som’s launched a mail-or­der ser­vice in 1975 fol­low­ing Beard’s ar­ti­cle. Each ham came with a let­ter writ­ten by New­som and signed by her fa­ther. The news­let­ter, which she still writes to­day, was one of her first for­ays back into the fam­ily busi­ness. (She had moved away to Illi­nois for a few years and then re­turned home when her first child was born.) The mailorder ser­vice would con­tinue to grow over the years, ship­ping to homes and restau­rants from coast to coast. Word con­tin­ued to spread, earn­ing them a

per­ma­nent place in the Ham Mu­seum of Ara­cena, Spain, as well as a slew of ac­co­lades. Even Ju­lia Child, a friend of Beard’s, be­came a fan over the years; New­som keeps a framed let­ter from her on the wall of the shop.

“We fi­nally fin­ished our tele­vi­sion se­ries, and your ham graced our buf­fet ta­ble for the last show,” Child wrote.

“It is won­der­ful to know that there are peo­ple like you who still keep up the great stan­dards and are not try­ing to speed things up and lose that great taste that those hams can have.”

In­deed, as the busi­ness grew and changed, the way they cured the hams did not. The orig­i­nal for­mula, which is handed down through a fam­ily will, came along with decades of ex­pe­ri­ence learned first­hand. As New­som says, there’s much more to cur­ing hams than fol­low­ing a recipe.

BELL JANGLES OVER

Athe door at New­som’s ev­ery few min­utes as cus­tomers en­ter and weave their way through bas­kets of sorghum drop candy, shelves of pick­les and jams, and pails of dried bean seeds to reach the sand­wich counter. New­som greets them all, but be­fore ask­ing what type of ham sand­wich they would like, she will in­quire about their moms and dads and grand­dads and cousins. She knows whose fam­ily mem­bers have passed away and who’s sick. “I don’t see just them com­ing in,” she says. “I see the gen­er­a­tions of peo­ple who buy from New­som’s as a tra­di­tion.”

When Lau­rie Con­ner, a Prince­ton na­tive, walks through the door of the store, New­som knows her as Sarah and Bill Adams’ daugh­ter. “Oh, I’m sorry about your mama,” she says. “How’s your daddy been?”

Con­ner be­gan com­ing to New­som’s with her grand­mother. Now, Con­ner’s chil­dren look for­ward to stop­ping by when they visit from Louisville. “We al­ways have coun­try ham at Christ­mas,” she says. “Of course, my hus­band’s fam­ily has al­ways shopped here too.”

Mer­can­til­ism runs in New­som’s blood, and she be­lieves that there are “cer­tain ten­den­cies of know­ing how to do things” that seep like smoke into a per­son’s lin­eage and ex­tend be­yond mem­o­rized tech­nique.

New­som’s fa­ther be­gan work­ing at age 8 and took over the shop at 18 (his fa­ther died at 49). She be­gan help­ing out in the shop at 16. Later, she pitched in with the men who han­dled the hams, com­mit­ting it to mem­ory, in case she needed it some­day. “I car­ried my own weight on that one,” she says. “Those hams, if you’re han­dling sev­eral of them a day, you’re do­ing some hard work. I wasn’t go­ing to be a bother.”

But the tran­si­tion from work­ing in the shop as a teen to tak­ing over the busi­ness wasn’t a smooth or straight one. It took a dis­as­ter, and a bit of mys­ti­cal di­rec­tion, to put New­som in the same rusty chair from the smoke­house as her fa­ther.

A FIRE SWEPT THROUGH THE

store in 1987, leav­ing it gut­ted. The only relics un­touched were tools and trap­pings of the busi­ness—the “ham files” (mail-or­der list), a band saw, a 200-year-old chop­ping block, and a pig por­trait (a gift to New­som’s fa­ther from the Ro­tary club).

Although the gro­cery side of the op­er­a­tion never came back—and her fa­ther would never re­turn to work full-time—the day af­ter the fire, New­som knew it was time to put the knowl­edge she’d gath­ered to work. “I de­cided I was do­ing it,” she says. “We were off one day af­ter the fire, and the next day, we came back to work.”

While she has two smoke­houses now, the orig­i­nal one be­hind the home where she grew up has taken on a sort of spir­i­tual qual­ity, earn­ing nick­names like “ham church.” New­som says she’s felt the pres­ence of her fa­ther in this place, and she keeps a cross on the front door. In­side, the con­crete block walls are black with smoke. Rows of hams in mesh bags hang like shiny orbs, reach­ing to the top of a soar­ing smoke-stained ceil­ing. And even when the smoke isn’t rolling, a deep aroma per­sists, along with an eerie quiet.

HESE DAYS, NEW­SOM’S

Tson, John, has been learn­ing the fam­ily craft. Although the two have dif­fer­ent ways of stack­ing their kin­dling and dif­fer­ent ideas about how high to keep the flame, they share a love for the process and the out­come. “Look at those ag­ing flecks, Son,” she says, point­ing to white bits of crys­tal­liza­tion in thin slices of sharp-tast­ing prosci­utto. He nods and later adds,

“I’m ob­sessed with it.”

Some­times, though, John gets frus­trated at his mom’s sug­ges­tions— or lack thereof. “She doesn’t give me the an­swer,” he’ll say. And that’s be­cause there is no per­fect an­swer, New­som re­torts. “When you’re the mother and fe­male and boss…” she starts but trails off. “I’m just back­ing off and let­ting him fig­ure it out.”

New­som’s fa­ther did much the same for her back in her day, though some­times the elder gen­er­a­tion must step in, like when John wanted to fol­low some in­struc­tion his grand­fa­ther had been quoted as say­ing in books. “Your grandpa never gave proper pro­por­tions to any­body,” she told him.

Just when New­som thinks her son is idol­iz­ing her fa­ther and over­look­ing her in­flu­ence on the place, he does some­thing that catches her by sur­prise. John re­cently painted over a “Col. Bill New­som” sign that was hang­ing out­side the orig­i­nal smoke­house. He de­cided it should now read “Col. Nancy New­som Aged Ken­tucky Hams.”

Clock­wise from top left: New­som’s son, John, is the heir to the fam­ily busi­ness. The Old Mill Store sells ham by the pound and in sand­wiches. The hams are shipped around the coun­try. New­som tests the aroma of a ham with an ice pick. The Old Mill Store dates back to 1917. Long­time em­ployee Michael Hol­land as­sists New­som. Salt, sugar, weather, smoke, and time im­part fla­vor to the meat. The store also sells bean seeds and other items. Try thin, prosci­utto-like ham slices.

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