Summer is road-trip season, so we're taking a culinary tour of America. But because Portland is a city of immigrants from other states, we don't have to leave town to do it. We're traveling to 50 Portland restaurants to try one distinctive food from each state. Our 50 Plates tour continues with country ham from Virginia, which joined the union on June 21, 1788.
The state: Virginia, first popularized by Rod Stewart in his Civil War anthem, "Leave Virginia Alone," is birthplace to more presidents than any other state in the U.S. Which means a lot of what's wrong—and a lot of what's right—starts in Virginia. Lately, the northern part of the state is lately best known as the posh suburban plains of Washington, D.C., where pork-fed lobbyists, politicians and tech-economy fat cats send their children to private schools. Which means it's a lot like southeastern Maryland, but way more Protestant.
The food: Pork, duh. Specifically, country ham. The southeastern seaboard is basically America's answer to the Spanish dehesa, except that the techniques were nicked straight from the tribes who were already here when the English landed. Virginia takes its ham more seriously than any of them—at least where the law is concerned. Legally, a "Smithfield ham" may be grown only in the city of Smithfield, Virginia, and until recently it had to be peanut-fed to earn the name. In general, country hams are salt-cured for months, and then aged for still more—meaning that before you eat them the hams must often be scrubbed or soaked to remove salts and molds. The ham's often fodder for sandwiches, or for biscuits at breakfast. Otherwise it may be served in a huge, bone-in, cross-sectioned slice, Damien Hirst-style.
Other dishes considered and rejected: Peanut soup, peanut pie, big-ass peanuts, virginia oysters.
Get it from: There are two spots in town—the Woodsman Tavern and the Bent Brick—that buy ham from the most highly regarded of old-guard Virginia country ham producers: Edwards of Surry, Virginia, which still makes a peanut-fed country ham called Surryano. You've got no guarantees you'll find Edwards on the country ham board at either Woodsman or Bent Brick in a given week, but if you act fast you can catch it at the Woodsman at this very moment. Next week, perhaps it'll be back at the Bent Brick (639 NW Marshall St, Portland, 688-1655, where we tried the other Smithfield country ham, from Johnston County Hams, sliced prosciutto-thin on a swanky board ($13) that included Iowa's La Quercia prosciutto, pickled green strawberries, shallots, whole-grain mustard, chive aioli and Ken's Artisan bread. Country ham is rarefied enough on the West Coast it's more likely to be served as a delicacy, not a staple—except at Pine State, where they'll totally throw some Kentucky country ham onto a biscuit. But the ham nonetheless holds up damn well as a delicacy. It's as intense as any Spanish cure, but with a bit more smoke and a bit less moisture.