In Maryland, it is still possible to enjoy a ham made from homegrown hogs and smoked in a local meat-processing plant. Recently, I visited the Mount Airy Locker Co., run by Thomas Wagner on Main Street in Mount Airy, which transforms hogs to ham in about one week.
At the beginning of the week, Wagner calls a Frederick County farmer and tells him how many of the animals to bring to the plant. After the white Yorkshire hogs, which on average are about 5 months old and weigh about 260 pounds, are processed, the meat cutters in the plant deliver the rear legs to Boe Smith. Smith, who has been curing hams for 27 years, injects each whole ham with a liquid mixture of salt, brown sugar, maple syrup and a trace of the preservative sodium nitrate, increasing the ham's weight by no more than 15 percent.
Then, after a three-day dip in salty brine, the ham hangs for about 12 hours in a stainless-steel container filled with hickory smoke. This cooks the ham until its internal temperature hits 155-156 degrees. The smoke bath adds flavor, Smith told me, and also dries out the ham, eliminating most of the weight it picked up when it was injected with the sugar solution.
Wagner sells these "semi-cooked" hams at his retail shop in Mount Airy and at Springfield Farms in Baltimore County.
Another Maryland operation, Truck Patch Farms in Carroll County, also sells its local hams at various farmers' markets. Starting in January, it will sell them Saturday mornings at its farm, at 3201 Sams Creek Road in New Windsor.
Here are some tips on how to choose a ham:
* Already cooked, or so-called "city hams," such as Wagner's, are the ones most Americans eat. Their curing process is much shorter than the one used to make the highly flavored, dry-aged, salty "country hams," produced in Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.
* The best and most expensive city hams like Wagner's are simply labeled "ham." Next, in descending order, comes "ham with natural juices," followed by "ham, water added," and finally "ham and water product."
* If your ham has a bone, plan on it serving 2 to 3 people per pound. If the ham is boneless, it should serve 4 to 5 per pound.
* How to bake: Place ham, fat side up, in a pan filled with 1/4 inch water. Bake at 325 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes per pound, until its internal temperature reaches 135 to 140 degrees. Transfer to carving board, tent loosely with foil and let rest 30 minutes before carving.