A holiday ham tradition

Renowned family-run business shares their secrets of success

photo courtesy of Johnston County Hams—photo courtesy of Johnston County Hams
Johnston County Hams have been a fixture on holiday tables for over 60 years.

Whether carved and served with a side of stuffing or thinly sliced and served in a buttermilk biscuit, ham makes its way to the center of the family table for the holidays.Country hams have long been a Southern tradition. It’s a tradition Johnston County Hams has been proud to be a part of for decades as its own practice for curing, processing, and developing country hams has been passed down from generation to generation.”We’re a family-owned and family-run company that’s been around since 1946. Our meat produced is centered on quality and not quantity,” said Rufus Brown, curemaster and operations manager.The curing process for Johnston County Hams is legendary as it began with Brown’s father, Jesse.”Our way of curing hams is a neat process. It is something that you think of as an artisan craft. We take a lot of pride in the quality of our products,” said Brown.While the company began in 1946, it wasn’t until Jesse came down to Smithfield from Virginia in 1967 and instituted a curing process that made the hams delicate and not overly salty. A lightly smoked aroma and salted taste is the staple of Johnston County Hams. The unique flavor is a result of the curing process which is based on techniques used by America’s early colonists.”We put just enough salt on our country hams so the taste is not overpowering. We salt down our country hams for 45 days at 38 degrees. We then move them to the next stage, the equalization room, where we hang them for two weeks at 50 degrees. The last stage is moving them to the aging room where they hang at 80 degrees for at least 30 days,” said Brown.”We allow plenty of time in the aging room. We always keep them in there longer.”Jesse passed in 1996, but his son, who began working at the company in 1989, has continued the tradition of curing hams and serving them to families throughout the South.Johnston County Hams produces approximately 50,000 hams a year. The best seller is the 3-pound, boneless buffet country ham. In addition to country hams, Johnston County Hams produces prosciutto as well as smokehouse meats including smoked turkey, dry cured bacon, and country sausage. Honey hams are another popular treat.”Water is added with grocery store hams. Our hams are a dry ham as the water is cooked out of it,” said Brown. “Our honey hams are a sweeter type of ham.””If you’re given a whole ham, don’t store for long periods of time and slice the ham thin since it’s a saltier product,” he added.By salting hams and curing them naturally through changes in temperature, Johnston County Hams has hand-crafted a Southern tradition for the ages.