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Jack McCall: An ode to country ham and red-eyed gravy

Jack McCall • Updated Mar 6, 2018 at 7:00 PM

You might say I was introduced to country ham and red-eyed gravy at an early age. When I was 5 months old, my mother began to tear the middle out of biscuits and soak them in red-eyed gravy for my breakfast.

She declared that I could put away “some more” biscuits and red-eyed gravy. Her telling the story inspired me to pen these poetic lines:

When she spooned in a bite, I would grin

as the red-eyed gravy ran down my chin. 

Dewey King Knight, a neighbor who married my father’s double first cousin, Lucy McCall, would stop by our house two or three mornings a week just to find out how many biscuit middles I had eaten for breakfast.

He got a kick out of hearing I had eaten a half-dozen or more. 

I was hooked on country ham long before medical science discovered cholesterol to be an enemy of the human circulatory system.

My former neighbor for more than 30 years, Jerald Shivers, used to drive a delivery route for the Colonial Baking Co. Jerald insisted there were only two kinds of bread and both began with a “C”…Colonial bread and cornbread.

Well, for me there’s only one kind of real ham and it also begins with a “C” – country ham. 

I know, I know. There are sugar-cured hams and the like. But most of them are actually pork shoulders. 

On occasion, I have ordered ham and eggs for breakfast in a restaurant, and the waitress asked, “Would you like city ham or country ham?” I did my best to hide my look of dismay. Quite frankly, I have difficulty using the word “city” and the word “ham” in the same sentence. There is nothing “city” about ham. 

The curing of real country ham is becoming a lost art. Oh, the days when the meat box was filled to the top with pork and salt, and the smell of hickory smoke penetrated the air. Smokehouses of the past were filled with the most delightful aromas. The rich smells left behind over the years by slow smoke and curing meat are indescribable. My best attempt would be to say it had a delicious earthiness about it. 

When I was a boy, our family celebrated Christmas each year with my Granny Lena’s family, the Bradfords, on the Sunday after Christmas in New Middleton. The event took place at the home of my great-uncle, Carson “Stumpy” Bradford.

The Christmas dinner table always showcased three kinds of ham. One was a big sugar-cured ham, tender, pink and sweet. Then, there was a big platter of fried country ham. The third ham was an old country ham that had been boiled. It was prepared to perfection. It had a deep, rich wine-red color to it. And the fat was creamy yellow in color. And salty? Who wee. If you ate much of that ham, your tongue would be raw. And you would have to spend the rest of the day around the watering hole trying to quench your thirst. 

But that ham was fantastic. A piece of it would flavor everything else you had on your plate. Never was a common biscuit so honored as to have a piece of that ham laid between it. It makes me thirsty just to think about it.

One of my favorite restaurants is the Log Cabin Pancake House in Gatlinburg. Once or twice a year, I visit there for breakfast. When I do, I order country ham and eggs. It is real country ham, center-sliced. That piece of ham is so big it hangs off each side of the plate. It takes no small amount of resolve to eat a whole center slice of real country ham. So far, I’ve always been up to the task. When I am finished, my plate is clean and the little bowl that held the red-eyed gravy is empty. The only thing left is the round ham bone. And I chewed the last remnants of ham off it.        

When I was growing up, my mother would often say, “Moderation in all things.” In my humble opinion, a center slice of real country ham twice a year is not going to hurt anybody.

And it won’t hurt you either. Makes you hungry just thinking about it, doesn’t it? If you, by chance, aren’t living out in the “country,” it will take you back there. 

Jack McCall is a contributing columnist for the Lebanon Democrat.

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