Working out of an old vet hospital in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Bob Woods supplies smoked, cured country hams to some of the best chefs in the South.
The first time I ever heard about Bob Woods and his hams was during a conversation with Sean Brock.
"You walk into this old vet clinic, and there's just ham everywhere," the Husk chef told me. "Picture a guy smoking a bunch of hams in a residential area, smoke everywhere coming from a house. People called the fire department so many times that he had to put up a sign when he’s smoking hams that says 'HAMS SMOKING.'"
Located in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, a small town thirty minutes outside of Nashville, The Hamery has turned out some of the best—if not the best, according to Brock—cured country hams in the country since 1968. Bob Woods has proudly run curing and smoking operations inside of his grandfather's small veterinary hospital since 1981, after graduating law school and deciding to return to his roots, which have long tangled around big legs of ham.
The Woods family has been in the Nashville area since 1808, when they began curing hams to survive.
"When the settlers came here, they brought livestock," Woods tells me. We're standing in a dark, cool room decorated with at least 5,000 pounds of hams hanging from the ceiling; the man is radiating enthusiasm. "Those European hillbillies have been curing for centuries, and my hillbilly ancestors have just been doing it for about 200 years. But it’s the same process – salt, applied to fresh cured chilled pork. And that actually enabled them to thrive in this area because they had a stable food source."
In the 1920s, there was still no electricity in the area, so Woods' mother and grandfather raised hogs and killed hogs and cured hams to preserve the meat. They had a smokehouse out of necessity, not to sell artisanal products to chefs.
To Woods, hams tell stories.
"When customers tell me about the food they ate growing up, I can tell you what economic scale they were on," he says. "If they ate two-year-old hams, they were well-off: They could age hams for up to two years without having to raid the smokehouse. If they only ate fresh pork, they were eating week to week."
Then there is the matter of flavor, which, only in the past 50 years or so, has become the reason people seek out country hams in the first place. And Woods' hams are exquisite. Dense with flavor, yet somehow still melty on the tongue, the meat lets you know it's been cared for, tenderly.
"You're removing the water and concentrating the flavor by a third," Woods says. "Curing ham—curing meat—is a reduction. You taste that stock at first, and you reduce it a third, it’s better. When we cure the hams about a year, they’ve lost about a third of their weight – so that’s that much reduction. When we age them the second year, they’re losing another ten percent. So it just concentrates the flavor."
At any given moment, Woods and his four employees are dealing with 27,000 lbs. of hams, all of which must be tracked and circulated from room to room – to make space for new hams – during the months-long salting and curing process, and then smoked with apple and hickory wood. In the cute, homey front room, customers can buy country ham sliced or by the whole leg, all while admiring the framed ham accolades and news articles about Woods behind the register. In a small refrigerator, you'll find ham and angel biscuits – fluffy biscuits made in house, of course, that he sold about 50,000 of over the holidays – and other goods like bacon, locally-made preserves, chow chow and big slads of lard, the kind that Woods' mother used to batter and fry growing up.
When I arrive in mid-March, Woods is getting ready to smoke a batch of hams that have been in the cooler room for three weeks. The smoking process, which takes four or five days, slows down the fat from turning rancid and adds a bit of color and flavor.
"When the peach trees in our area start blooming, it's time to smoke hams," he says. "We hang them up in these nets and we move them around the building just to create space for more hams."
Tennshootoe, a play on "prosciutto," is The Hamery's signature and trademarked product. The hams, retailing at $175 a leg, are aged over 18 months "and rival any European dry cured ham," the product description reads. Woods recognizes that some people think the name Tennshootoe is corny. He says he both likes it and doesn't like it.
"I was born here and raised here, and my parents were raised here, and I named this ham something similar to Italy," he says. Woods sells the Tennshootoe ham to a handful of prominent restaurants in Nashville, including Brock's outpost of Husk.
The Tennshootoe hams are made with hogs that come from a large commercial facility in Missouri, while he smokes some heritage breeds on a case-by-case basis, usually for chefs and farmers. Karen Overton, who has a farm in Lebanon, Tennessee, raises some Mangalitsa hogs herself, then brings them to Woods to cure them; she sells those at her shop. While Woods recognizes the heightened interest in heritage breeds "and going back to the old type hogs that were fat," he's found that consumers generally prefer the leaner meat on the industrial hams, which aren't so thick with lard. Bob Woods enjoys both.
"You eat this Mangalitsa ham and you say, 'Man this is just great.' And then you eat my industrial ham and say, 'Man this is great,'" he says. "They’re just different."