Sam Suchoff is taking country ham where it hasn’t gone before: to the locavore set.
Country hams, a tradition popular in the Southeast, developed as a way to preserve the ham, a cut of meat from a pig’s hind leg. The ham is salted to cure and sometimes smoked, left to hang for months and loses up to a third of its weight. Most folks may enjoy a slice, slathered with mustard on a biscuit or served with grits, eggs and red-eye gravy, but some, Yankees in particular, have been turned off, not expecting such a briny bite to their breakfast meat.
Suchoff makes his Lady Edison country ham using pork from local farmers that is raised on pasture and without the use of antibiotics or hormones. That pork appeals to shoppers who try to eat local or are interested in how animals that appear on their dinner table were raised on the farms.
Country ham isn’t just a Southern breakfast staple. It can also go high-end, served thinly sliced like an Italian prosciutto. Johnston County Hams in Smithfield sells the famously fatty Mangalitsa ham as a cured reserve country ham for $275 a pop, and Edwards Hams of Surry, Va., sells a “Surrayno Ham” at $40 for 12 ounces. Suchoff’s ham retails at Southern Season in Chapel Hill for $34.99 a pound.
Suchoff is not the first North Carolina country ham producer to use local, pasture-raised pork. Goodnight Brothers in Boone uses the same pork for their products, which sell at Whole Foods and Earth Fare stores. However, Suchoff, who collaborates with Rufus Brown of Johnston County Hams to make these hams, is also championing country ham as something to be as appreciated in America as prosciutto in Italy and jamon in Spain.
“Like lots and lots and lots of American foods, (country ham) has gone through the dark path of industrialized foods, but it’s true identity is being kept alive by people like Rufus,” he said. “I’m trying to place these hams on the pedestal they deserve.”
At Mateo, a Spanish tapas restaurant in Durham, Suchoff’s ham appears on the menu alongside Spanish Iberico and Serrano hams. Mateo’s chef and owner Matt Kelly predicts Suchoff’s hams will convert the wary. One taste, Kelly said, can make them think, “I never thought country ham could be like this.”
From cubicle to kitchen
Suchoff, 33 (pronounced SUE-choff), grew up in Los Angeles but graduated high school in Chapel Hill. His father is an engineer and his mother is an artist. Both parents loved being in the kitchen. Suchoff wanted to go to culinary school after high school, but his mother insisted that he go to college. (“I have apologized to him many times,” Debbie Suchoff said.)
He studied at New York University for two years, then transferred to UNC-Chapel Hill to finish his mathematics degree. After eight months working as a statistical research associate, Suchoff gave up his cubicle for the kitchen. He worked at Open Eye Cafe, Lantern, Neal’s Deli and the now-closed Barbecue Joint before opening The Pig in 2010. Suchoff is partners with Catlin Hettel, a hairstylist and salon owner. They have a 5-year-old son, Sebastian.
While Triangle diners may not know his name, they have likely tasted his food.
They may have eaten smoky ribs, vinegary chopped whole-hog barbecue or crispy country-fried tofu at The Pig off Weaver Dairy Road in Chapel Hill.
They may have stopped for a hot dog with mustard and slaw at the food cart Suchoff mans Saturday mornings at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market. A few steps away, they may have bought mullet, bluefish or Spanish mackerel that Suchoff smokes for Phil Campbell, the market’s seafood and fish seller.
Or they may have bought pork or beef at a Weaver Street Market, a local co-op grocery chain that Suchoff is helping to buy more local pork and beef.
Friends describe Suchoff as friendly, upbeat and easygoing. They chuckle that this former vegan, Jewish boy makes his living primarily from pork. He says his many projects result “from liking to talk to people.”
That’s how Suchoff ended up working for Weaver Street Market. Tony Zuco, manager of the co-op’s commissary kitchen and bakery in Hillsborough, tasted Suchoff’s hot dogs at the farmers’ market and asked to sell them at the grocery stores. After some cajoling, Zuco got Suchoff to see the kitchen.
The pair saw the mutually beneficial possibilities. Suchoff could use the facility with staff butchers, a huge kitchen and a large smoker to make his hot dogs along with his restaurant’s barbecue and other meats. Weaver Street Market would be the exclusive retailer of the hot dogs and tap into Suchoff’s expertise to source local meat, develop products and elevate its own meat offerings. Zuco said about Suchoff: “This is the kind of person that can help us get better.”
About two months ago, Suchoff joined Weaver Street Market part-time.
It was no different for Suchoff’s sideline business in country hams. Suchoff has a long relationship with Brown, owner of the old school country ham outfit Johnston County Hams in Smithfield. Years ago, Suchoff connected a local farmer with Brown to smoke the hams from her heritage-breed Ossabaw pigs.
“He just loved talking to this guy,” said chef Andrea Reusing of Chapel Hill’s Lantern restaurant about Suchoff’s relationship with Brown. “They were like these kindred ham spirits.”
When Suchoff started his restaurant, he committed to buying whole hogs raised by local farmers, on pasture and without the use of antibiotics or hormones. To use the whole animal, Suchoff had to make more than barbecue, so hot dogs, sausage, bologna, salami, even pork cheeks appeared on his menu.
Buying whole hogs also left Suchoff with lots of hams so he approached Brown about turning them into country hams. This collaboration to produce Lady Edison hams, Reusing observes, “was such a leap of faith – something you could only do based on a real relationship.”
Now, Suchoff has 18,000 pounds of country ham aging inside Brown’s ham room in Smithfield. The hams hang from hooks above a sawdust-covered floor.
Brown, whose family has run Johnston County Hams since 1968, has had many inquiries from others wanting him to make a product for them. He said, “I’ve gotten a lot of calls from other people I’ve turned down.”
But Brown was intrigued enough by the idea that he bought some of these pasture-raised hams from Suchoff to cure for a new addition to his own product line.