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Smoked out: Town revered for its hams is losing a slice of its history

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Salted ham curing in the smokehouse at Darden's Country Store in Isle of Wight County, Virginia.

Smithfield, Virginia

THE local charity run is the Hog Jog. The mascot for the wine festival is Pig-o-noir. October brings the Bacon & Bourbon Fest. The town museum promises the "World's Oldest Ham". The rescue truck at the volunteer fire department is named "Hamtown Heavy".

You could say Smithfield is a little obsessed with pork products, but that would understate how deeply hogs are woven into the history and life of this town of about 8,300 on a hill over the Pagan River.

So it has come as a shock that Smithfield Foods is shuttering the last smokehouse that produces the area's signature product, the genuine Smithfield ham. "Really? You're going to do this?" was the reaction of local historian and former Smithfield Foods executive Herb De Groft, 77. "Country meats are what brought this area to the fore in the 1800s. Word was, the Queen of England used to get one Smithfield ham a year."

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The salty, long-cured ham has been an area staple since the English colonists and their hogs arrived at nearby Jamestown in the early 1600s. Virginia law dictates that genuine Smithfield ham is cured in Smithfield.

"Anybody can make a ham," said Jennifer England, director of the local museum, where pig fanciers can keep tabs on a ham cured in 1902 via the online "Ham Cam". "But a Smithfield ham can only come from within the town itself."

The company has said little about its plans since the Smithfield Times newspaper broke the story about the smokehouse last month. A Smithfield Foods spokeswoman said that the smokehouse had reached the end of its useful life and that the company has plenty of genuine Smithfield hams stockpiled to satisfy immediate demand.

The smokehouse is said to be more than 50 years old, but whether the company will build a new one, seek a change in state law or simply abandon the "genuine Smithfield" moniker is a matter of local speculation.

Originally, a hog destined for a Smithfield ham was turned loose on harvested peanut fields to glean the remainders. The peanut oils infused the meat. As hog farming grew in scale in the mid-20th century, though, the requirement that Smithfield hams be peanut-fed was removed from state law.

Creating a Smithfield ham takes commitment. The cut hams are coated in salt and left to cure for more than a month; hung in a smokehouse and smoked for up to a week, until the colour looks right; then left to hang and age for six months or more.

Cooking a Smithfield ham is a ritual of its own, often caught up with Thanksgiving or Christmas memories, the salty meat soaking for a day or more before being washed and cooked and sliced tissue-thin.

"The tourists come in looking for it specifically," said Leigh Abbott, general manager of the Smithfield Inn, which dates to 1752. "I think the locals get a little tapped out on it. Though bacon unites everybody."

Across the street from the inn, a genuine Smithfield ham can cost from US$150 to US$200 at the Taste of Smithfield restaurant and store.

Some old-fashioned producers remain in the surrounding countryside. Edwards hams are well-known in nearby Surry County, though a smokehouse fire caused a shortage a few years ago. Felts hams are big in Southampton County.

Just outside Smithfield, at a crossroads among the cotton fields of Isle of Wight County, Tommy Darden carries on the tradition at his Darden's Country Store.

"My daddy, he cured hams most all his life," Mr Darden, 71, said. He and his wife keep a smokehouse across the street. They buy fresh-cut hams from Smithfield foods then cure and smoke them by hand.

Mr Darden has 950 hams hanging in his smokehouse. He salted them in February, hung them in mid-March. They dangle from the dark rafters like props in a Renaissance painting, the surfaces rough with salt, the air pungent and rich. They were ready to be cut down and cooked on the Fourth of July.

With a basket of tomatoes and a basket of ham biscuits on the counter of his shop, Mr Darden said he will never get tired of the salty meat. NYTIMES