The Story Behind the World’s Oldest (Pet) Ham

Courtesy of Isle of Wight County Museum // Used by Permission
Courtesy of Isle of Wight County Museum // Used by Permission

In 1931, P. D. Gwaltney Jr. entered a hotel in Washington, D.C. with a suitcase in his hand and a question on his mind: Could he stow a piece of luggage in the hotel’s vault? The clerk looked at the suitcase and asked what was inside that was so important. Gwaltney’s answer was, in effect, "Oh, just my pet ham."

Gwaltney wasn't joking. He was a ham man, the owner of one of the most successful pork-processing companies in Virginia, and he promoted his business by lugging around a 30-year-old smoked “pet ham,” which he showed off at county fairs, food shows, and even military ships. Much like a dog, it had its own personalized brass collar.

Ham on battleship
Courtesy of Isle of Wight County Museum // Used by Permission

Nor was Gwaltney joking about having the hotel safeguard it. An insurance company valued it at $5000—or $77,000 in today’s money. “Whenever he went to a food show, [Gwaltney] brought a special chain, and he’d bolt the chain to the floor so no one would steal the ham,” says Tracey L. Neikirk, curator of the Isle of Wight County Museum in Smithfield, Virginia.

It was all part of a clever marketing ploy that had helped cement Gwaltney’s hometown of Smithfield as the Ham Capital of the World.

 
 

Virginia and hams have gone together since the state was first settled. According to the inimitable The Country Ham Book by Jeanne Voltz and Elaine J. Harvell, when English colonists arrived in Jamestown in 1607, they came with a ship full of pigs. The vessels that followed in their wake also brought swine. Eventually, so many pigs were clogging the footpaths of nearby Williamsburg that locals banished the pigs to an island on the west bank of James River, now called Hog Island.

The pig population flourished around Smithfield and Isle of Wight County. When peanuts became the region’s go-to crop after the Civil War, the pigs were allowed to wander onto the peanut fields and fatten themselves on the leftovers of the year’s harvest. These peanut-stuffed pigs would launch Smithfield and its hams to culinary stardom.

The peanut diet—along with a lengthy curing process—produced a uniquely flavored ham that wowed taste buds across the globe. By the middle of the 19th century, Queen Victoria was ordering six Smithfield hams a week for her palace kitchen. Prices for Smithfield hams soared. When counterfeiters began hawking inferior meat under the same name, the Virginia state legislature created strict rules for what qualified as a Smithfield ham: The pigs had to be fed on a partial diet of peanuts, and the ham had to be cured within the boundaries of Smithfield proper.

In other words, Smithfield had become the Champagne of hams. Enter P. D. Gwaltney Jr.

 
 

In 1891, P. D. Gwaltney Jr. joined his father’s Smithfield peanut business and helped expand the company into a ham-making superpower. By this point, Junior had learned a few lessons in marketing from his old man: A year earlier, his father had picked a peanut from a local field, scribbled the year on it, and began showing the well-preserved specimen to anybody curious about the quality of his crop. As years passed, Gwaltney Sr. realized that the peanut’s age was an attraction in itself—today, it’s the oldest peanut in the world.

In 1902, Gwaltney Jr. pulled off a similar stunt when a single cured shank was accidentally forgotten in his warehouse. When he discovered the abandoned ham, Gwaltney smelled a smoking business opportunity. He decided to keep the ham to see how long it could last.

Gwaltney and Ham
Courtesy of Isle of Wight County Museum // Used by Permission

Years passed. In August 1921, one of the Gwaltney family peanut warehouses caught on fire, sending tons of peanuts and a nearby ham-house up in flames. According to the Isle of Wight County Museum, “The smell of burnt peanuts and melting fat hung in the air for weeks.” (Tragedy never smelled so delicious.) The pet ham, safely stowed offsite, was spared.

The fire permanently crippled Smithfield’s peanut business and left ham as the town’s top export. Gwaltney Jr. responded by aggressively promoting his ham products—and that meant trotting out the pet ham. He insured it for $1000, then he upped the protection to $5000. In 1932, the ham appeared in Robert Ripley’s Believe it Or Not (which claimed the ham “remains tender and sweet and fit to eat after 30 years”).

Now, the 116-year-old hunk of meat—officially the world’s oldest ham—is burnt maroon in color, marbled with splotches of yellow and white, and covered with deep wrinkles. It resembles old dried leather. It shares a special glass case with two fellow hams at the Isle of Wight County Museum.

A display of preserved hams with the world's oldest ham in the center.
The world's oldest ham (center).
Courtesy of the Isle of Wight County Museum // Used by Permission

According to Neikirk, the ham smells “smoky” and “woody.” (Its neighbor—the world’s largest ham, which weighs 65 pounds—is more complex: “It still has a thick layer of fat on it, and the fat still has peanut oil in it. So if it gets warm, you can actually smell peanuts.") And while both hams remain edible, the century-old specimen is not as appetizing as it used to be. “It’s more like ham jerky now,” Neikirk says.

Today, the museum continues the ham’s tasteful history of playful gimmickry. Each year, it holds a “Pan-Ham” competition, asking world travelers to bring a photo of Gwaltney and his ham on their vacations. (Winners are awarded a basket of peanuts.) The ham has a Twitter handle. And a webcam allows ham fans around the world the opportunity to check in 24/7.

Everything You Need to Know About Activated Charcoal

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iStock

Activated charcoal is everywhere. Touted in alternative health circles as a versatile treatment for almost anything that ails you, its proponents claim that it clears up your acne, treats inflammation caused by "toxic mold," draws out the venom from a snake bite, eases a hangover, halts your farts, removes "toxins" from your body, and brightens your pearly whites.

But there's little to no evidence for these claims. Though charcoal has a very long history as a folk remedy—ancient Egyptians used it as a treatment for "odorous vapors from putrefying wounds"—for the past century or so, its medical use has primarily been in emergency rooms to treat overdose and poisoning cases. In most cases there just aren't any clinical studies to test its efficacy for any other use. Not only that, but experts who spoke with Mental Floss caution that these treatments might come with added risks, too.

WHAT IS "ACTIVATED CHARCOAL"?

Activated charcoal isn't quite the same thing as the briquettes you use in your grill. Though they're both made of residue left from burning carbon-rich organic materials like wood, peat, or coconut shells, activated charcoal is oxygenated, which makes it far more porous. To activate the charcoal, manufacturers use steam or hot air to erode its internal surface [PDF], which increases the outside surface area along with its adsorption rate—the capacity to bind materials to a surface. Because of those adsorption abilities, charcoal has earned a reputation as a kind of bodily super-cleanser.

When you ingest activated charcoal, it works as a "gastrointestinal decontaminant," attracting various chemicals from your stomach and digestive tract, and then eliminating them from the body. That's why it's so helpful in cases of poisoning or drug overdose: It adsorbs the dangerous substance so it doesn't enter your bloodstream, then simply passes right on through—and out of—your system.

FROM E.R. TO GOOP

Activated charcoal had been popular in certain health food circles for years when, in late 2014, Gwyneth Paltrow's website Goop featured a "charcoal lemonade" sold by a Californian juice bar on a list of the best juice cleanses for "a good old-fashioned detox." Today, the substance can be found in everything from facial masks and odor-dampening comforters to a wide range of food and drink: Chefs are using activated charcoal to create pitch-black cakes, cocktails, pizza crust, and ice cream that's taking Instagram by storm.

The tiny bit of activated charcoal in the occasional cocktail probably won't do any damage—but it's not a good idea to take the substance on a regular basis, according to Rachele Pojednic, a professor of nutrition at Simmons College. "When you ingest it, you can't target what it's going to interact with," she says, "so if you’re on certain medications, you need to be really careful."

Some have never been on board with the stuff, including the FDA and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which recently started enforcing in restaurants a long-standing ban on activated charcoal. The agency—following FDA guidelines—considers it an "adulterated food."

IN CASE OF POISONING …

Aside from treatment for an overdose or poisoning, you don't need to take anything to "detox" your body: not a supplement, not a juice, not a soup. Nothing. That's what your liver is for.

"There's really no data to show that [activated charcoal] is going to do anything other than remove some pretty high-level ingested toxins" like the ones found in cases of poisoning or overdose, Pojednic says.

It's also dubious that activated charcoal can cure a hangover, as some alternative health practitioners recommend. "You feel a hangover because you're really dehydrated," she tells Mental Floss. "There's nothing in your system that needs to be extracted." While you might feel better after taking it, Pojednic says that's most likely because your hangover went away over time.

There are some risks associated with ingesting activated charcoal, too. Thanks to its adsorption abilities, charcoal can also take out all of the good chemicals in your system, including nutrients and the active ingredients in certain medications (like antidepressants) if taken around the same time.

BRUSH YOUR TEETH BLACK?

One of the most common products you'll find activated charcoal in is toothpaste; its advocates claim it whitens teeth. About a year ago, John Brooks, DDS, a dentist and researcher at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry, found himself getting questions from clinicians and students wondering what to tell their patients about activated charcoal toothpaste. He and two other professors reviewed the scientific literature and found that there's little evidence to support the claims of charcoal toothpastes because they haven't been tested. Brooks tells Mental Floss, "None of these charcoal toothpastes have undergone the rigors of scientific testing."

And, again, there are potential risks. While it's possible these toothpastes could whiten your teeth in the short term, they're so highly abrasive that they're likely to remove the enamel from your teeth too, which means your teeth won't stay white for long. Brooks also worries about patients regularly swishing known carcinogens—like silica and bentonite clay, which some charcoal toothpastes contain—around in their mouths. Moreover, he says, charcoal could potentially interfere with beneficial toothpaste ingredients, like fluoride.

IN THEORY, IT COULD HELP YOUR SKIN

The one cosmetic benefit of activated charcoal might be found in skincare products—maybe. As chemist Michelle Wong writes, "There isn't any good data on whether or not it works, but theoretically, it could work." It's possible activated charcoal's adsorption abilities could reach into your pores, pulling out the dirt and oils that get trapped there. But these products have not been rigorously tested, so we can't be certain about their efficacy. Wong also points out that activated charcoal typically takes several hours to have an effect, whereas most charcoal skincare products are applied for mere minutes.

The activated charcoal trend seems to be holding strong, despite the lack of evidence for its health claims. So eat that pitch-black ice cream every once in a while if you like, but don't count on it to improve your health.

Does Washing Your Fruits and Vegetables Really Do Anything?

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iStock

Washing produce is one of those habits that some people follow religiously and others shrug off altogether. If you're someone who struggles to find the motivation to cook in the first place, you might fall into the latter group. But cleaning your fruits and vegetables at home isn't just an outdated precaution: As Popular Mechanics reports, a thorough rinse could mean the difference between a meal that nourishes you and one that leaves you sick.

Produce is one common carrier of norovirus—a foodborne viral infection that triggers such symptoms as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. There's no way to know whether your lettuce is contaminated with harmful bacteria before it hits your plate, but cleaning it with plain tap water does make it safer to eat. According to USA Today, rinsing produce is effective enough to remove 90 percent of the pathogens left on it by the growing, harvesting, and shipping process. Rinsing is also a good way to remove any of the visible matter you don't want eat, such as grit and soil.

Cleaning your fruits and vegetables is definitely an improvement over eating them straight from your crisper drawer, but be warned that this isn't a foolproof way to avoid food poisoning. Water won't remove all the microbes living on the surface of your food, and even an extremely thorough rinse isn't enough to make produce contaminated with potentially deadly bacteria like E. coli safe to eat. But that doesn't mean the risk outweighs the benefits of including produce in your diet.

If you have a pile of veggies that need to be prepared for dinner, the best way to make them safer for consumption is to rinse them under cold water and rub them in a bowl of water, starting with the cleanest items and progressing to the produce that's more soiled. Give all the food a final rinse before moving it to the cutting board. Peeling the outside of your produce and cooking it when possible is another effective way to kill or remove stubborn bacteria.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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