When thinking ahead to Thanksgiving dinner, the meat that comes to most people’s mind is – I won’t even say the word. Here at Broadbent’s, we’re all about ham, not those large birds that make for the centerpieces of so many American Thanksgiving dinners. Sure, it’s true that turkey (fine, I said it) played an important role in early American settlement, with Native Americans introducing the game bird to arriving settlers for the first time. But ham, and pork in general, was a big part of the legendary cultural exchange as well.
The first pigs arrived to the New World with none other than Christopher Columbus, on his second voyage to the Caribbean. Released onto the island of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic), eight pigs multiplied rapidly. They were distributed to nearby islands for meat over time. It took almost 50 years after Columbus for Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto to finally deliver pigs to the present-day United States, arriving from Cuba to explore the Southeast. De Soto seems to have been quite the pig enthusiast. He presented them to the natives as gifts and died with hundreds of them in his possession.
The iconic settlement at Jamestown in 1607 seems to have been when pigs really began to take hold as an American staple. The John Smith-led English settlers introduced pigs to the Virginia forests, where the climate made it an ideal feeding and breeding ground for the animal. It soon became an autumn tradition to round up the fattened pigs for slaughter. Native Americans, having long used salt to preserve the wild game they hunted, worked with settlers to preserve the pork. As other Native American and European influences made their way into the process, the country ham emerged. Salt pork became a major food staple for American settlers, playing a critical role in their survival and expansion.
About seven miles from Jamestown, just down the James River towards the Atlantic, settlers garrisoned a lookout point on an island to warn of approaching threats. To protect wandering pigs from being stolen, the settlers transferred them to this garrison. It came to be known as Hog Island, serving as a fertile breeding ground and storage point for the pigs. Today, Hog Island is a Virginia state waterfowl refuge.
See what I mean? Pork and ham played as important a role in the early American story as anything else, including the more popular Thanksgiving staple. The country ham might not exist without the blending of American cultures. And who knows if the United States as we know it would exist without ham. Give ham the historical credit it deserves by serving one at your Thanksgiving table.