The Story Behind Elvis' World's Fair HamBy Hanna Raskin Tue., Mar. 27 2012 at 12:00 PM
Among the revelations in KCTS's new documentary When Seattle Invented the Future: The 1962's World's Fair is the provenance of the ham that Elvis Presley famously gifted Gov. Albert Rosellini. The ham didn't come from Presley's own smokehouse, as has sometimes been reported, nor did it even come from Tennessee. When Presley's manager, the notoriously big-talking Col. Tom Parker, had to make good on his ham promise, he sent a boy to fetch a ham from the local A&P.
Parker's rascally behavior isn't surprising. But a spokesperson for the National Country Ham Association says she's stunned that a Seattle grocery stocked a ham that could pass for a genuine Tennessee product.
"I don't know how that would have happened," Candace Cansler says. "I'd be curious to know where he got that ham."
Parker told Rosellini that the ham had been shipped to Seattle by Tennessee's governor, Buford Ellington. But the ham provoked skepticism from the start.
"The ham must have had a rough trip from Tennessee," the Post-Intelligencer's Charles Dunsire wrote. "It had a gouge on one side as though someone had taken a chaw." In proud Southern style, the Netherlands-born Parker blamed a Republican for the ham's shabby condition. "I wonder what Republican took a bite out of the governor's ham?," he asked.
Cansler initially theorized that the hastily-procured ham came from a backyard smokehouse. "They probably went to someone's barn and got it," she said. Told that the area around the fairgrounds wasn't prime barn territory, even in 1962, she speculated that the ham could have been produced by Clifty Farms, a Paris, Tenn. producer that's been curing hams since 1954. Clifty distributed its hams from Atlanta, and Cansler thinks it's possible one of them reached Seattle, although she concedes it's highly unlikely.
It's nearly as preposterous to propose the ham was salt-cured and smoked in Washington, since country ham traditions are largely confined to a few Southeastern states where pigs are prevalent and the weather's cool and mild. In An Obsession With Ham: The Hindquarter, Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough quote from the "first documented reference to an American country ham," a 1944 publication which refers to ham-making in Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and Vermont.
While a Washington country ham would be no less legitimate than a ham from the Green Mountain State, there's no evidence that country hams were ever popular here. A 1928 Seattle Daily Times ad for A & K grocers promoted Jones Dairy hickory-smoked country hams for Easter, but the paper's archives are otherwise bereft of country ham advertisements. If country ham was ever mentioned in the Seattle Times, it was usually in conjunction with a columnist's unrequited nostalgia for Southern cooking. "Shirl brought a country ham from one of the Southern doctors at Swedish Hospital, where she works," Tom Swint wrote in a 1977 preview of the annual Dixie Picnic, a reunion for Southern transplants. "It should make great red-eye."
Whole country hams are still hard to find around Seattle, Cansler says. "You're only going to see them in the Southeast," she says. And even there, she adds, grocers are increasingly anxious about hanging cured meat in burlap sacks.
"I saw one last week that had put a whole ham in a refrigerated case," she says. "It does no good. It only creates mold, in my opinion."
According to Cansler, country ham production is down slightly from 2000, when the association last conducted a comprehensive survey. A new survey will be presented at next month's producers' conference.
"We're feeling we're maybe down just a tad," she says. "We may be down half a million."
In 2000, the country ham industry produced 3.1 million hams.
Cansler attributes the slight drop-off to a tornado, which damaged a manufacturing facility, and slowed production at another plant. Consumer tastes may also be shifting to sweeter hams: Dillard House, Georgia's venerable outpost of Appalachian cookery, recently started serving sugary "city hams" instead of country hams.
As a group of agronomists reported in 1948, "the finest Virginia- and Tennessee-type hams are cured without sugar." Although country ham makers might slip a flyspeck of sugar into their curing formulas, sugar is not a curing agent, so a true country ham skews salty. Yet quick-baked, glazed hams have long had a following in the Pacific Northwest. In 1962, the same year of Presley's presentation, Albertson's advertised its "sugar-cured hams" in the Seattle Daily Times. The "world's finest Sunday dinner treat, so tender and delicious," sold for 45 cents a pound. If Parker's errand boy found a ham at the A&P, it was probably of the "sugar-cured" variety.
It's unknown how the ham tasted, since Rosellini - described as "bewildered" by the ham hand-off --apparently didn't eat it. "I sent it back to Olympia," he told reporters.