When it comes to Florida cuisine, the conversation starts with Norman Van Aken. The chef and author was among the first to realize the tropical food goldmine of the region, and his restaurants and cookbooks have had a huge influence. Now the chef/owner of Norman’s at the Ritz-Carlton, Grande Lakes, Orlando and Director of Restaurants at Miami Culinary Institute, Van Aken is hard at work on his next book, My Key West Kitchen, due out in fall 2012. Each week, he contributes to Food Republic with his “Word On Food.” He’s on Twitter: @normanvanaken.

Last week I was in Atlanta for the second annual Atlanta Food & Wine Festival. The folks who started this up, Elizabeth Feichter and Dominique Love, have hit the sweet spot on all manners of Southern cooking and drinking with this fest. This year, my son Justin and I were busier than even the inaugural last year with a dinner at the “Optimist’s Club,” a “nose-to-tail” demo on whole fish grilling at The Loews Hotel and finally, a farewell party Sunday evening called “A Chorus of Greens,” hosted by Atlanta star chef Anne Quatrano.

We did take a few classes at the festival, though not nearly as many as we wanted. One was on the long tradition of making country hams. The person more American chefs look up to on that subject than any other is a gentleman from Madisonville, Tennessee named Allan Benton. The list of his fans would fill this page. He said at one point, “I’ve nearly starved to death doing this job…until now.” (I’m glad he had the country steel to hang on!) Mr. Benton was joined on stage with about six chefs who each had a ham they were carving from when we entered that porcine-perfumed hotel conference room. Chef Art Smith had just handed me a ham-filled biscuit not an hour before this class, but it didn’t staunch my lust for these works of edible art.

When I was about 19 years old, I started hitchhiking around America with a couple of buddies. One of the routes I came to know well was the one between my hometown in Northern Illinois and my soon-to-be-adopted hometown of Key West. One of my pals was from Cincinnati, so we routinely rested up and re-fueled there (compliments of his mother’s refrigerator and his step-daddy’s beer cooler in the basement).

A number of times we got off the superhighways and hit the little two-lane “blue highways.” I remember traveling through western Kentucky very near the Southern Illinois border one beautiful spring day and passing through the towns of Metropolis, (where they had a big painting of Superman on the water tower) and another called Monkey’s Eyebrow (for reasons I still don’t know). It was in the town of Cadiz that I began, way back then, to understand the meaning of country hams. 

Country hams may appear to be inedible. They are really very hard, with some mold often marking the exterior. The folks who make them start with about a 50-pound section of pork meat. It is, somewhat troublingly, called a “green ham” at this point. Burying or rubbing them thoroughly in a salt, sugar and or pepper mixture for up to 3 weeks is next. They are not injected, which is a cheap quick-fix suitable only for commercial grade hams. Great hams take time, almost a full year in fact. There were hams at the Atlanta Festival from 11 Southern states. The only one missing was Florida. Ham Master/Chef Linton Hopkins looked me in the eye as I was thanking Mr. Benton and said, “Hope to see Florida in here next year.” The challenge lies before me.

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