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Rural Missouri Magazine

Tradition 'meats' technology
Time-honored ham-curing methods meld
with modern marvels at Burgers’ Smokehouse

by Jason Jenkins
Philip Burger, vice president of Burgers’ Smokehouse, examines a rack of smoked hams. At any one time, there are more than 250,000 hams inside the company’s California facility.

Electricity hadn’t yet reached the Moreau River Valley in Moniteau County — or for that matter, most of Missouri — when E.M. Burger sold his first country cured hams in 1927. At the time, curing meat was still a necessity of life for rural Missourians, a method of preserving food when there weren’t many other options.

It would be more than 20 years before Co-Mo Electric Cooperative would eventually find its way to Burger and what had become a growing ham operation. Although electricity and the refrigeration it supported could have made country curing obsolete, E.M. embraced the technology and used it to expand his business.

Today, Burgers’ Smokehouse south of California, Mo., continues to embrace new technologies and develop curing advancements. What began as a means of earning a little extra money for the farm is now a multi-million-dollar company and the nation’s largest producer of country ham and specialty smoked meats.

Burgers’ products — from cured hams, bacons, sausages and smoked poultry — can be found across the U.S. in grocery stores, on restaurant menus and in home kitchens. Following their grandfather’s innovative spirit, a third generation of the Burger family now guides the company, keeping its traditional products relevant to the modern American lifestyle.

Though known by many names, dry-cured ham is found around the globe in a belt that extends east from Missouri through Virginia, across the Atlantic Ocean to Spain, southern Germany and northern Italy, and even to southern China.

“In this belt, the weather and conditions are ideal for curing meat naturally outdoors,” says Philip Burger, vice president. “Farther south, winters are too warm and the meat would spoil before curing; farther north, winters are too cold and the meat would freeze.”

Burgers’ employees place center-cut ham steaks onto a conveyor belt that feeds them into the “water knife” machine. The steaks pass under a camera, then a computer determines how best to trim fat from the steak.

Each season of the year provides a different environmental condition necessary for producing hams. E.M. Burger cured his hams in this manner up until the 1960s when technology made it possible to cure hams year-round in climate-controlled rooms. However, the basic steps of country curing changed little.

Today, curing at Burgers’ occurs at the end of the week, when the freshest pork is available from packing plants. The hams are trimmed, and a mixture of salt, brown sugar and pepper is hand-rubbed onto each ham.

Each is then wrapped in white paper, placed in cotton netting and hung on a large wooden rack. These racks are then moved into a “wintertime” room where the temperature is cold enough to prevent spoilage while the cure penetrates the meat and makes it inhospitable for future pathogen growth.

Over time, the cure is absorbed into the meat, at which time the paper is removed from the ham in a process known as shucking. The hams are placed back in their netting, re-hung on the wooden rack and moved to a “springtime” room. Here, the moving air begins to dry the hams as the cure equalizes inside.

After drying, it’s time to allow the ham to age. This occurs in a “summertime” room where warmer temperatures pull grease from the ham, intensifying the flavors.

“The old-timers called this the June sweat,” says Philip.

Once aged, Burgers’ hams are hickory smoked. The entire curing process takes four to six months.

Country ham is still Burgers’ bread and butter, accounting for a little more than half of the company’s total volume. Around a quarter-million hams are in the 300,000-square-foot facility at any one time. Burgers’ cures more than 750,000 hams annually.

Using a thin stream of water pressurized to 40,000 psi, the “water knife” machine accurately trims 45 to 50 steaks per minute.

However, most of these hams aren’t consumed as they once were. While the whole ham may still be the centerpiece on many dinner tables at Christmas, Easter and other holidays, the rest of the year, on-the-go Americans eat differently.

“Folks don’t stop and buy a whole, uncooked country ham anymore. That’s somewhat of a relic of a time when a full-time homemaker was responsible for food preparation,” says Philip. “People now buy pre-cooked, pre-sliced ham.”

To keep up with this change, Burgers’ now packages country ham in many sizes, from large center-cut ham steaks to chopped and diced ham ready for seasoning dishes such as green beans. The company was one of the first to adopt the use of an automated, high-speed vacuum packaging machine, which allows sliced and diced foods to remain fresh for months under refrigeration.

Even for special occasions, most consumers purchase pre-cooked, spiral-sliced hams.

“You still get that centerpiece item, but with the extra convenience of a product that, with just a couple slices of a knife, is pre-carved and ready for serving,” adds Philip.

Another innovation in Burgers’ processing plant recently gained the attention of “Modern Marvels,” a TV program on the History Channel.

For an upcoming episode called, “The Pig,” a crew for the show visited the plant in September and filmed how Burgers’ uses a machine called a “water knife” to trim and portion ham steaks. While the technology is used in other industries, its application for trimming ham steaks is unique to Burgers’.

Ellen Jean Smith of Jefferson City browses Burgers’ assortment of bacons at the visitor’s center and country store. She and her husband, Donald, took a day trip to Burgers’ with their daughter, Sarah Smith of Columbia.

"The steaks are fed in on a conveyor belt,” Philip explains. “Once inside, they pass under a camera, then a computer determines the best way to cut each steak with two, 40,000 psi water jets. One jet trims half of the steak, and the second jet trims the other half.”

The machine is capable of trimming 45 to 50 ham steaks per minute, many times faster than could be accomplished by hand.

Mail order has been a part of Burgers’ sales plan since the 1960s, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that the company focused its efforts.

“It was basically a business that we did once a year,” Philip says. “You printed a catalog, sent it out before Christmas, got a bunch of orders, filled them, billed them, and after Christmas, you packed it all back up, threw it in the closet and forgot about it until the next fall.”

Today, Burgers’ is the mail order leader in cured and smoked meats. The division accounts for about one-third of company sales. While the holidays still drive the segment, customers can order products year-round.

To keep up with its mail order business, Burgers’ was one of the first companies in the United States to adopt an automated shipping system.

Food service is another growing segment of Burgers’ business, also accounting for about one-third of sales. Many national restaurants, such as Bob Evans, Cracker Barrel and Waffle House, rely on Burgers’ to supply unique items for their menus.

“A lot of folks don’t see or recognize this side of the business because it’s not branded,” Philip says. “On our larger accounts, the product is tailored directly to their needs. They want product that is consistent, both in taste and in plate appearance. We literally use micrometers to measure the thickness of our steaks.”

Because of Burgers’ expertise, many other businesses have hired the company to produce items under their private labels.

E.M. Burger died in 1972, and his son, Morris, led the family business until the late 1990s when Philip and the rest of the third generation — including Steven Burger, Chris Mouse, Keith Fletcher and Ted Rohrbach — took over the company’s day-to-day management.

Morris Burger, left, has passed the tradition of country cured hams to the family’s third generation, including youngest son, Philip; nephews-in-law, Chris Mouse and Keith Fletcher; and oldest son, Steven. Along with son-in-law, Ted Rohrbach, the group serves as Burgers’ current management team.

Those who tour Burgers’ Visitors’ Center, with its dioramas representing the seasons of ham curing, can still find Morris working at the plant. These days, his focus is on new product research and development.

“We’ve recently introduced a maple bacon, and it’s been selling well,” he says. “I think it may be a keeper.”

With its commitment to innovation and technology, Burgers’ Smokehouse is sure to continue to find new ways to practice one of the world’s oldest food preservation methods long into the 21st century.

Burgers’ Smokehouse is located 3 miles south of California on U.S. Highway 87. To request a product catalog, call 1-800-624-5426 or visit www.smokehouse.com. Burgers’ Visitors’ Center is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, as well as Saturdays until Christmas. “Modern Marvels” is scheduled to air “The Pig” at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 27 on the History Channel.

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