If food writing could shed one word from its lexicon, there would be few better candidates than “perfect”, and its derivative “perfectly.”
For one thing, the term is so vague that it rarely means more than “very enyoyable.” To describe a dish as “perfect” or “cooked perfectly” inevitably leaves readers wondering how the writer prefers the dish. If a writer says French fries were “cooked perfectly,” does she like them crispy or soft? Heavy or light salt? Thick or thin? Ridged or smooth? Skin or bare? Twice cooked or thrice? In a more extreme example, “the liver was perfect” may mean one thing when written by a food blogger, and another thing altogether if the author is Hannibal Lecter.
With sleight of hand, “perfect” seeks to sneak the square peg of objectivity into the round hole of subjectivity. Yet, there is no Platonic Ideal of a dish towards which chefs are striving, or could ever reach. Rather, a chef’s task is simply to apply heat and other techniques to enhance the flavor of things we eat. We are all wired differently, and so enjoyment of a finished product can vary from one person to the next.
That said, if there is any food which a writer could be forgiven for describing as perfect, it is the Cville Ham Biscuit at JM Stock Provisions. The story of the Charlottesville butcher shop’s iconic biscuit tells how, over time, a team of passionate and patient food artisans developed the rare dish where further improvement seems inconceivable.
Necessity is the Mother of Invention
“Needs” may overstate the reasons JM Stock first created its ham biscuit. But, several objectives did converge to give it life.
A primary purpose was to sell coffee. Shortly before JM Stock sold its first biscuit, it had just introduced to Charlottesville Lamplighter Coffee — a young Richmond-based roaster whose philosophy aligned so closely with JM Stock that the butcher wanted to see them succeed. “They were sourcing beans the right way – direct, fair trade, and they were doing really nice roasting,” says JM Stock co-founder Matt Greene. While JM Stock wanted to support Lamplighter in Charlottesville, early sales lagged. A food option in the morning, they thought, might drive coffee sales. One idea was pie. That didn’t work. Another was biscuits.
A second objective was to sell ham. JM Stock buys entire hogs at a time and breaks them down in-house. While popular cuts like pork chops sell quickly, butchers must find other uses for less popular parts. Coming in at 30lbs a piece, legs are a particularly tough sell. JM Stock’s main way to do this is to make ham, but they had found that even ham sales could not keep pace with sales of other parts of the pig. “We had all these hams,” says Greene, “and we didn’t know what to do with them.”
These objectives notwithstanding, most of all Matt Greene was hungry for biscuits.
A Christmas Story
The JM Stock ham biscuit story begins on December 24, 2014.
‘Twas the morning before Christmas and Greene’s stomach was stirring. “I had a hankering for some biscuits,” says Greene. Besides, it was Christmas Eve, and JM Stock wanted to do something nice for its customers. So, they made biscuits.
For the ones made that day, there was no ham. Instead, with a surplus of butternut squash in the shop, they made butternut squash jam to spread on the biscuits. That was it.
The initial biscuit recipe came from Ean Bancroft, a chef who worked at JM Stock at the time, and has since relocated to Atlanta. From there, the recipe evolved over several months of tweaking and honing by Bancroft and others in the shop. Cut the baking powder in half. Cut the baking soda altogether. Buttermilk vs. whole milk. One buttermilk source vs. another.
“We just kept dialing it in until we got a product that we felt was bulletproof,” says Greene. “As little room for human error as possible.”
Though Greene and co-founder James Lum III sold JM Stock last year to Calder Kegley, the shop continues to make fresh biscuits every morning, and the bullet-proof process has not changed. The task of biscuit making falls each day to whoever happens to be opening the shop. To save time, they combine dry ingredients the night before, so that all that remains to be done the next day is add buttermilk, mix it, roll it, cut out the biscuits, pop them in the oven, and glaze them with butter right before they are done.
You can’t have a great ham biscuit without great ham. JM Stock uses its own tasso ham, which was created by meat wizard Alex Import, who has been with the shop since day one. Import has helped JM Stock win several national awards for his charcuterie, including a Best Charcuterie award for the tasso ham itself from the Good Food Awards.
Import’s two-week process for the tasso ham begins with the best product he can find, like Autumn Olive Farms pigs. He removes a whole ham from the bone and breaks it into three muscle groups: top round, sirloin tip, and bottom round. Next, he immerses the cuts in his own brine of water, salt, sugar, chile de arbol, Aleppo pepper, and garlic, pumping the liquid into the meat as well, so the outside does not brine more quickly than the inside.
Following a ten day brine comes a two day dry-cure in a Tasso rub, again Import’s recipe: paprika, chiles, bay leaf, coriander, dried oregano, and dried marjoram, which helps give the final product a flavorful crust. Finally, the ham is smoked for eight hours.
Chill, and slice the ham to order. Pile it high on a biscuit, and add a touch of honey and Texas Pete hot sauce. Voila. The JM Stock CVille Ham Biscuit.
The Cville Ham Biscuit
Last year a panel of food historians, chefs, and others embarked on a search for Charlottesville’s signature dish. After much research and discussion, the panel found it: the Cville Ham Biscuit.
One reason cited was the ham biscuit’s prevalence:
In Charlottesville, ham biscuits are wherever you turn: from the humblest dives to the most sophisticated restaurants, and everywhere in between. We find them in country stores, gas stations, butchers, farms, church suppers, picnics, cookouts, weddings, funerals, coat pockets, and car seats. We eat them to celebrate, we eat them to mourn, and we eat them for no particular reason at all.
Another reason is that Charlottesville makes such good ones. JM Stock’s biscuits have a particular following. While the biscuits were initially meant to increase the flow of ham through the shop, JM Stock now must order supplemental hams just to meet biscuit demand. The shop sells roughly 50 biscuits per weekday, and even more on weekends. Of the 2.5-3 whole hogs the shop receives each week, plus 2-3 supplemental hams, two thirds of all ham meat leaves the shop on a biscuit.
The 2019 Dish of the Year
Fat. Salt. Sugar. Spice. The composition is common. What is less common is the amount of time and thought the JM Stock team devoted to the details of each component. The result is a Cville Ham Biscuit that stands out even among our area’s stellar bounty.
A common reaction to trying JM Stock’s ham biscuit for the first time is to immediately declare it the best verson ever. During the panel’s survey of area chefs for their thoughts on Charlottesville’s signature dish, one top chef wrote: “After eating JM Stock’s ham biscuit the other day, I might say that it’s the signature dish of the universe.”
Indeed, even if you could travel throughout the universe, you could not find a ham biscuit better than the 2019 Dish of the Year: JM Stock’s Cville Ham Biscuit. Some might call it perfect.
The JM Stock Cville Ham Biscuit, as captured by the one-and-only Tom McGovern: