When you step into Harper’s Country Hams down in Clinton, KY, the aroma is overwhelming. Overwhelming in the most pan-fried, Southern, throwback-to-your-childhood, “Wake up! Mama’s makin’ breakfast!” kind of way. It’s the same aroma Curtis Harper smelled as a kid when his parents cured and smoked their own meats on their farm in Hickman County.
NOTE: Photos are not scratch and sniff.
Curtis Harper was born in 1915. Back then, country ham was a necessity. The Harpers, along with most folks, didn’t have refrigeration, and a ham is a big ol’ piece of meat. So the meat would last long enough to use it all. They’d salt it, smoke it, hang it up and eat it as they wanted. It’s a slow process – takes months – but good things come to those who wait . . . for country ham.
He needed larger containers to accommodate the increasing number of hams he was curing. Being the depression-era bargain hunter he was, Curtis bought and used old casket shipping crates from the local funeral home. As a smoke house, he employed an old two-seater outhouse. As the story goes, word just got out. At a time when it was harder and harder to find great country ham, Curtis Harper had it.
His big break came when the dirt road in front of his house became a highway around 1956. (Thank you, President Eisenhower.) Curtis put a sign up in his yard, added on to his house, hired some elp and donned the white suit and hat that became synonymous with Boss Ham. That suit still hangs in the Hickman County museum, a block away from the town’s only stoplight.
In 1995, Curtis’s son Gary took the reins from his father. Now, Gary’s wife Dolores and son Brian run the family business.
In 2013, they’ve come a long way from the outhouse smokehouse. Harper’s is an impressive operation with more than 80 employees producing 2.5 million pounds of country ham each year, found on grocery store shelves all over the country. They even supply the country ham and bacon to some big national restaurants. You’ve probably tasted their delicious product and not even known it . . . but you loved it.
“We really do business today the same way Granddad did,” says Brian Harper. “Once someone tries a Harper’s ham—whether it’s a chef, a store owner, an adult or a child—then they know what a country ham should taste like. They become a customer for life.”
This year alone, Harper’s has pretty much won every award a country ham can win. In August they won the title of Grand Champion Ham at the Kentucky State Fair. The blue ribbon ham sold at a charity auction for $350,000 (that’s around $26,315 per pound).
Cook’s Country, America’s Test Kitchen gave Harper’s the distinction of “Top Pig” in their annual taste test. Even the National Country Ham Association gave Harper’s ham their top award in a blind taste test. The tasters were country ham producers themselves. So, speaking quite literally, Harper’s hams are the best.
Today, Harper’s product line includes bacons, sausages, and city hams, and they are experimenting with new products all the time (their pork cracklins are particularly delicious). Harper’s Country Hams is still in that same spot on Highway 51 in Clinton, about 40 miles from Paducah. Brian and Dolores Torian Harper’s offices are still in a building that’s connected to Curtis Harper’s little white house. And they still use that time-honored process, making country ham the old fashioned way since 1952.
It’s a slow process, but good things happen to those who wait . . . for a Harper’s country ham.