Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Live From Smithfield Day 2

I was excited and woke up early on the second day of our trip to the Ham Capital of the World, Smithfield, Virginia, because that was the day for touring Smokehouse 3B.  That is the legendary place where all of the Genuine Smithfield Country hams are cured, aged, and smoked.  I wasn't sure what to expect.  I could see it being an old school traditional place but I was also thinking it might be automated processes with a lot of stainless steel machinery.  

[Disclaimer]  Smithfield Foods paid for my travel expenses for this educational trip

Like I said, I woke up early like a kid on Christmas.  So I went for a walk around the Smithfield Inn, pictured here.

On my walk, I ran into George Washington.  Not the dollar bill George Washington.  This was George "I'm crossing the Delaware, you just messed up son" Washington.

When I turned around from George, I found this rock. Viral marketing from the stone age;) 

We walked down the street to the Smithfield Gourmet Bakery and Cafe for breakfast.

Lobster Eggs Benedict?  Shut your mouth and take my money!  Buttermilk biscuit topped with Genuine Smithfield Country Ham, eggs over easy, lobster and Hollandaise.  I made my own version and that post is coming up.
So....Smokehouse 3B - the place where all Genuine Smithfield hams are cured, aged, and smoked. This is what I came to see.

At first glance, it doesn't look like much.  Certainly doesn't look like it could hand almost 70,000 hams does it?  The first floor is where the hard wood fires are burned but the second and third floors hold some 19 "houses" and each of them can handle about 3,600 hams at full production.

The inside of the smokehouse was dark as if the air itself had become tinted from decades of hardwood smoke.

The man giving us the tour was Jorge Morales, Supervisor of Dry Cure.  I quickly formed the opinion that Jorge is a master craftsman, the equivalent of a Master Distiller.  He walks the above halls every day, every house, checking on the hams during their 6 month journeys. He checks things like temperature and humidity but he also says that he "just knows" - a sort of intuition.

As we walked, Jorge told us how the process has changed very little from the early days when Smithfield started in 1936.    

When the hams arrive, they are salted with the cure. Photo Credit: Smithfield Foods

Today, pretty much the same cures are used.  Photo Credit: Smithfield Foods

Except today they aren't stacked in the open air on pallets like "back in the day".  They are held in large bins and allowed to cure for 8 weeks. Photo Credit: Smithfield Foods

The hams are then rinsed off, netted, and aged at around 4 weeks between 45 and 55°f. Photo Credit: Smithfield Foods

Then the hams are aged between 3 weeks at 90°f and 4 weeks at 85°f depending on a few factors and Jorge's ham whispering.  Photo Credit: Smithfield Foods

Finally the hams are smoked.  Then they are ready for packing.  Photo Credit: Smithfield Foods

The irony....    Photo Credit: Smithfield Foods

Once the hams go off, one from each batch is tested to make sure enough water was removed in the process.  Then a worker punches each ham with an awl and smells the awl to make sure the ham meets their high quality standards.  Yeah, I know!  I thought that was wild too. She tests  And her nose knows, if it's not right, she will reject a ham.  

Surely the packing process is automated, right?  Nope. A ham is handed to a guy with a stack of white paper and he wraps each ham up.  Then it's bagged and sewn up. Everything was hands on.  Photo Credit: Smithfield Foods

After that, we went to the Isle of Wight County Museum to learn more about this historic region.

  • The Europeans took their practice of salting hams and combined it with the Warascoyak tribe's method of smoking, creating the traditional cured/smoked ham that we enjoy today. 
  • In 1767 Mallory Todd started packing hams and sending to his family in the Caribbean. 
  • Although Todd started Smithfield's world wide reputation for quality hams, the town was still all about peanuts. That was until 1921 when a fire on the wharf took out the peanut warehouses.
  • In 1936, Joseph Luter established the Smithfield Packing Company.

These signs remind me of some sort of early South of the Border signs. 

The World's Largest Ham came from a 900lb hog.  The World's Oldest Cured Ham was actually carried around by P.D. Gwaltney as a prop as he went around promoting their hams.  He kept it insured for $5,000. 

World's Oldest Peanut.  This was carried around by P.D. Gwaltney Sr, who was known as the Peanut King.

Next we sauntered over to A Taste of Smithfield which is a charming half general store and half restaurant.

When we were told they used "a smoker out back", the BBQ pit geek in me had to go check it out.  It's a huge Lang reverse flow offset pit.
Came inside for a fun tasting menu.  I think the pork taco and country ham sweet potato biscuits were my favorites.
Next we went to Smithfield's Innovation Center where all of their research, development, and training take place.  They have a mock home kitchen (aka Granny's kitchen) and a full line from a commercial kitchen so they can accurately test their recipes in both real world environments.  They also have miniaturized versions of all of their processing equipment so they can test production changes with 50 lb batches instead of wasting 2,000 lbs each time. Pretty amazing place.

They also have a pig grill.  Cool, yeah?

We had a very frank conversation about designing meat products for various price points. Cheaper cuts of ham, turkey or anything can be made in 3-4 hours whereas a Genuine Smithfield Ham is going to take over 6 months to cure,  go from 20-23 pounds down to 16 pounds, and take 12 hours to smoke. The cost in man hours and loss to shrinkage are going to make a cured and naturally wood smoked ham worth significantly more.

Next it was time to break down half of a hog with Dr. Josh Shook, their on-staff meat scientist  Look at that money muscle (the bulge of muscle in the bottom left corner)!

Tuffy "The Professor" Stone also joined us to talk all things hog.  Tuffy is the owner of Q Barbecue (chain of BBQ restaurants), A Sharper Palate (gourmet catering company), pitmaster of Cool Smoke competition BBQ team, and he is a judge on BBQ Pitmasters.  Yeah, he's kind of a big deal.

Tuffy was dropping mad knowledge on us, including specifics about how many days "post harvest" he wants his ribs (14) and pork butts ("a little less") for BBQ competitions.  A week after this meeting, Tuffy would go on to win a third World Championship at the Jack Daniels Invitational.

As he was breaking down the hog, Dr. Shook told us that Smithfield takes measures to minimize wastes.  They use the entire animal except the skull and eyes.  

A "CT butt" or cellar trimmed butt is the top half of the pork butt. It's called that because processing houses utilized gravity systems to move pork around and by the time the butt got to the cellar, it was the most trimmed down.

The whole pork loin - a world of possibilities from crown roast to pork chops to tenderloins.

Finally for dinner we arrived at The Barn at Aberdeen, an amazing facility located right on the water.

My mother used to ask me, "Were you raised in a barn?".  After seeing The Barn, my answer would be "I wish that I was!"

First was happy hour with local cheeses and appetizers.

Next, Tuffy and Chef Colby discussed their whole hog cook and strategies used.  The winds were roaring off of the water at 25 knots, which any pitmaster knows can really screw with your cook.  Chef Colby wanted to let the pork shine, so he used straight salt on this 185lb dressed hog and then a mop of vinegar, black pepper, onion, garlic, and crushed red pepper.

Tuffy spoke about the difficulty of perfectly cooking a whole hog, rendering the hams and shoulders without drying the loins.  The weather conditions added more complexity. So how did they do?

Nailed it! 

After dinner I had a nice time talking with Dennis Pittman of Smithfield about their amazing Helping Hungry Homes initiative.  

Through this program, Smithfield has donated truckloads upon truckloads to communities and people in need.  Most recently they made donations to two of Operation BBQ Relief's deployments - Hammond LA and in North Carolina.  Turns out, his wife and my mom's family grew up in the same very small town in North Carolina.  He knows the pleasure of a Melvin's Burger from the original "pool room" in Elizabethtown. 

Day 2 Take Aways  (I could go on and on here but I will limit myself to two.)
  • I'm making changes to our pork and rib programs for competition BBQ based on what Tuffy told us in the Innovation Center.  
But the main take away was this unedited note from my scribblings at the end of the day.

  • Very surprised at the family feel of the company locations that we visited.  I expected the cold machine of a corporation but what I found in talking to people at the plants was doing right by others - worker safety, food safety, HACCP.  It echoes the company tag line of "good food - responsibly" and the CEO message of 'if you see it and walk by it, you are accepting it"
So I wasn't sure what to expect...but I walked away totally impressed with Smithfield and their people.

Next up is my take on the Lobster Eggs Benedict...