Smoked: The best ham in the Triad

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Ham, baby.

by Kelly Fahey

A customer enters Ronnie’s Country Store, passing the dry goods, barrels filled to the brim with dried beans and a rack of hams hanging in nets. He approaches the ham counter, turning a careful eye towards the pile of ham sides.

These sides, Roy Anders says, are often sliced thick and fried as bacon, or sometimes chopped up and used to season beans or greens.

Anders, who has been working at Ronnie’s Country Store for 20 years, arms the customer with a two-pronged fork, which he uses to select the sides that he sees fit for purchase. Anders then wraps the sides up with the fluidity of someone who’s done it thousands of times, tapes the wrapping and scribbles directions for the cashier on the paper.

Beside these massive chunks of pork are ham hocks, smaller cuts of meat generally used to liven up the flavor of a pot of beans. To the left of these cuts are the whole hams, the No. 1 seller at Ronnie’s Country Store and the product that has made such a name for this establishment.

The charming little country store, which is easy to miss near the corner of Seventh and Cherry streets, doesn’t seem to fit amongst the tall buildings and upscale dining rooms of downtown Winston-Salem. Unlike the neighboring beacons for foodies and restaurateurs, it didn’t move to the city — the city moved to it. Under the ownership of WG White, the store was a hub for trading and commerce dating back to 1925. White maintained ownership of the store, which was called simply “WG White,” until his passing in 1991. His family held down the fort for a few years, until Ronnie Horton and his wife Carolyn purchased the business in 1994.

Although running his country store has been Horton’s first experience in selling hams, he was no stranger to running a grocery. He was the assistant manager at Paragon, a much larger grocery store that used to operate in Winston-Salem, for 16 years before leaving for his own shop. He said that the last straw was when the store decided to start opening on Sundays.

“I’ll work for six days a week, but on Sundays I go to church,” Horton said.

Ronnie's is a downtown Winston-Salem institution.
Ronnie’s is a downtown Winston-Salem institution.

Horton’s history with the country store goes back much further than 1994. He recalls going to the store as young as the age of 7. He even grew up right across the street from WG White, and his father used to work there. Although the store is located on the other side of the street now, Horton claims that the store is pretty much the same in appearance and inventory. He says the most noticeable change has been in the buying habits of the customers.

“Back then, health was not an issue,” Horton says. “People didn’t really watch what they eat. Now customers come in and only buy vegetables because they’re health conscious.”

The store’s exterior doesn’t seem to have changed much over the years though. Outside, its green awning covers a wealth of fruits and vegetables in wooden barrels. A sign hangs from the window listing the fresh produce available that day. A banner, unassuming and austere, hangs from the top that reads: “sugar cured hams.” It looks like the kind of place that would hold some kind of secret inside, and it is. Horton’s secret is that he sells the best ham in the Triad.

It comes as no surprise that this, the holiday season, is the busiest time of the year for Ronnie’s Country Store. The demand to get a delicious, whole ham on the table is never higher than Thanksgiving and Christmas, and Ronnie’s Country Store is no exception: Horton moves more than 1,000 hams during the holiday season. The Christmas Ham tradition is certainly not exclusive to this area though.

Everyone’s Christmas traditions vary. There’s the stressful onslaught of Christmas shopping, the awkward political arguments and, for me, fending off questions about why I don’t have a real job yet. At the end of the day, it’s food that brings the family back together. But it’s not bread you break; it’s ham.

This is some pretty serious ham.
This is some pretty serious ham.

The Christmas ham, in all its glory, lies in the middle of the table in a casserole dish with pineapple and cloves on top. Sitting next to it, a bowl of homemade mashed sweet potatoes resonating with aromatic brown sugar and maple, and maybe a green-bean casserole. The sides tend to vary, but the main dish is often constant.

The tradition can be traced back to the Germanic Pagan god Freyr, whose legend is associated with boars, harvest and fertility. In ancient Norse culture, it was ritual to sacrifice a boar to Freyr for good luck in the New Year. The boar was carried into the banquet hall for all to feast on, in classic holiday fashion.

The Anglo Saxons during Medieval times carried this grand feast onto the British Isles, which is likely where it became synonymous with Christmas.

Ham’s connection to Christianity is furthered by the practice of converts from Judaism during the Spanish Inquisition, who at the time were referred to as “Marranos” by Spanish Catholics, being fed ham to test their alliance to the Catholic Church. If they ate the ham without hesitation, they were safe. If they didn’t eat the ham, they were considered liars and in direct noncompliance with Catholic orthodoxy.

Like so many Christian traditions, this dark past was appropriated and made into a staple of the holiday. Ham is traditionally served for Easter and Christmas, and even in some homes on Thanksgiving.

There is a shorter, simpler answer for why ham is a fixture on so many people’s Christmas dinner menus: Pick up one of Ronnie’s hams, throw it in the oven, and almost nothing can go wrong.

Horton’s specific baking directions, which he has typed out and made available for whomever asks, are to soak in the ham warm water for four hours, cover with brown sugar, and bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes per pound of the ham. It’s the ideal main course for a family gathering: Put it in the oven and try not to forget about it.

When it’s ready, the pungent aroma fills the kitchen. You’d be hard pressed to find someone that would turn ham away, unless his or her religion or morals forbid the meat.

Plus, a ham can feed a small army. The leftovers will leave you eating sandwiches for weeks. Along with turkey, and maybe prime rib, it’s the perfect banquet food, and it’s more affordable that it’s counterparts.

If ham is the ideal holiday food, Ronnie’s Country Store is the ideal place to buy it. The store has a certain charm that resonates the feeling of the holidays like togetherness and tradition.

How many businesses today are family owned and operated? Even Horton’s son, who he assured me would rather not be photographed, works at the shop.

It’s an experience just walking up and down the aisles of the country store, but the main attraction is the ham, and Horton knows that. Watching him carve off a few thick slices of ham with the precision of a surgeon, I’m assured of the man’s dedication to the meat on which he has built his name.

So after perusing the bountiful canned preserves and pickled vegetables, inspecting the litany of packaged meats and freshly cured hams, I knew there was only one thing I could do to complete my experience at Ronnie’s Country Store: Eat the ham.

Ronnie's country ham, put to its highest use.
Ronnie’s country ham, put to its highest use.

Horton grabs a hunk of pork the size of a football, inserts it into his Hobart slicer, and carves off two hefty cuts of his famous sugar-cured ham. He displays them on the counter and waves me over. Using his fingers to outline the meat, he describes exact method for frying his ham.

“Be sure to flip it four times,” he tells me, “and cook it until the white part on the sides turn golden brown.”

I ask him if I should season it with anything, to which he replies: “Can you scramble an egg?”

Upon returning home, I pour some oil onto my frying pan, as instructed. I flip the ham slices four times, as instructed. I don’t let the pan get too hot, because according to Ronnie this leads to the final product getting too crispy. I garnish it with an egg over medium, as I prefer this to scrambled, and dig in.

And I can say without doubt that Ronnie’s is the best ham I’ve had. Maybe it was the buildup: I had some serious expectations about this ham. Or maybe it was just the fact that I had been thinking about and surrounded by ham all day, but that was some satisfying ham.

I cut open the egg, letting the runny yolk mingle with the briny slices of ham. The marriage of these flavors is nearly perfect, but begs to be accompanied by a cup of black coffee.

The saltiness of my first bite delivers a startling and almost overpowering flavor, which was then soothed by the sweetness that comes from the sugar-curing process. That’s what separates Horton’s ham from most country ham, which refers to the curing method used in the rural South where that salty flavor comes from.

Horton says the sugar in his ham lends itself to the sweet flavor of Southern cooking.

“People in the South like them sweet,” he says. “Anything sweet, they’ll eat.”