We made ourselves hungry talking about hickory-smoked bacon en route to Burgers’ Smokehouse in California, Missouri. Dave Crum, general manager for Arrowhead Specialty Meats and former chef de cuisine at bluestem, drove while Chef Howard Hanna of The Rieger rode shotgun and I settled into the spacious back seat of Crum’s black SUV. Our adventure began at 6:30 AM on a brisk overcast December weekday. We convened at The Rieger and headed east on I-70. Within minutes, we started discussing where we could eat a bite before we left the city limits of Kansas City.
Like a siren’s call, the appeal of touring Burger’s, known for its superior hickory smoked ham and bacon, was irresistible to the three of us. Dave, son of Deb and Jim Crum of Crum’s Heirlooms in Bonner Springs, came up with the idea for this food field trip over a year ago. He suggested the trip while chatting with me one sunny day on the sidewalk patio in front of The Rieger. It didn’t take much to convince me and Howard that we should drive across central Missouri to visit Burgers’. The combination of salt, sugar, smoke and meat spoke to my primal instincts.
Professionally, Dave had good reason to learn more about Burgers’, a client of Arrowhead Specialty Meats. His company sells two tons, or 4,000 pounds, of slab bacon from Burgers’ each week to clients. All three of us were fans of cooking with the smoked meat at home. Howard regularly features Burgers’ meats on The Rieger’s menu. Dave and I parted ways that spring afternoon, and our good intentions were swept away by the flow of work and life.
Then Howard revealed plans in October 2013 to open Ça Va, a new champagne bar, in Westport. While eating lunch at the chef’s counter of The Rieger that fall, I learned that ham from Burger’s would likely make an appearance on the menu, which was a work-in-progress. Cold weather and the approaching holidays also put me in the mood for comfort food. I resurrected the idea of making that pilgrimage to Burgers’, pitching the trip to Dave and Howard. They heartily agreed and we prepared for our ham and bacon quest.
Arrowhead Specialty Meats sells two tons, or 4,000 pounds, of slab bacon from Burgers’ each week to clients.
Two hours flew by on the drive as we traded comments about breakfast, restaurants and what we wanted to eat. Howard called farmer Thane Palmberg to place a produce order for leeks, potatoes and other produce. Of course, we discussed the finer points of bacon.
Dave shared his admiration for Burgers’ Smokehouse. “Burgers’ sells direct with Arrowhead versus selling through Sysco. It’s good to feel you have those relationships.”
Sysco is the 800-pound gorilla in the business of marketing and distributing food products to restaurants. Arrowhead is a smaller scale specialty meat supplier. With locations in North Kansas City and Lewisville, Texas outside of Dallas, the company acts as a middleman between small producers like Burgers’ and local restaurants and other accounts.
The conversation turned to the chef’s tastes in bacon. Howard prefers that his bacon not taste too smoky or sweet. He said, “It should have a good balance of meat and fat.”
“The trend is toward applewood-smoked bacon,” Dave said. This style is sweeter than hickory-smoked and has cinnamon in the rub. But tastes in the market do shift. “We’ve gone full circle from flavored bacon to plain hickory style.”
“I don’t want bacon to taste sweet. There should be just enough sugar for balance,” says Dave, who prefers a brown sugar cure over white sugar.
“If the bacon has more sugar on it, then I want black pepper on it,” Howard adds.
I prefer thick-cut bacon with savory black pepper and salt balanced by a touch of sweetness and smoke. I rarely bother with watery, thin, classic-cut bacon, and often dust a plate of fried bacon with black pepper for extra kick.
Dave and Howard reveal insights about frying bacon. If the slices stick to the pan, then the bacon was probably injected with brine. The fat should retain its texture as it crisps up rather than melt out.
We passed Odessa and neared Boonville before turning south on a county highway. We skipped the chain restaurants that populated the interstate and hoped we could find a good local joint in California before arriving at Burgers’. For three guys with hearty appetites, we were woefully unprepared with our breakfast planning.
We stopped at the Dutch Bakery and Bulk Goods Store in Tipton, a few miles away from California. Dave and Howard hadn’t been there before and I thought we might find some snacks to tide us over. A college friend from Tipton first tipped me off years ago to the bakery’s pies, cinnamon rolls, candies and snacks. Not finding any breakfast food that wasn’t laden with sugar, we vowed to return after our tour and continued to the smokehouse plant about 15 minutes further east on Highway 50. By the time we arrived, we were famished.
Burgers’ Smokehouse Visitors Center is a granite stone building that houses a working water wheel; three museum-quality dioramas showcasing winter, spring and summer in the Ozarks; and a sandwich shop. We walked inside and marveled at the display of old tools and implements used for the art of meat curing and historic photographs. An Ozark farmhand in overalls – animatronic like a country cousin to the Chuck E. Cheese band characters – perched on a wooden platform overhead and greeted us. We turned a corner in the hallway and entered the showroom where the The Good Ole Days Theater, reception desk and sandwich counter was located.
Sales representative Terry Meisenheimer greeted us as we checked in at the desk. A nearby sign welcomed us as today’s guests. After seeing the hundreds of products available for sale in the store, including multiple varieties of ham, bacon, bacon steak and jowl, our appetites were fully primed. We ordered country ham sandwiches for breakfast to appease our hunger.
We ate in a large meeting room, joined by Terry and Philip Burger, corporate vice president, who gave us an overview of the family business and addressed questions about their history, plant operations and upcoming innovations. Philip confirmed how popular applewood-smoked bacon, which uses 20% less sodium, had become. Within a year or two, he anticipated that this style will become the company’s best-selling bacon.
“Slab bacon is, hands down, what Arrowhead sells the most of,” Dave said. “I think Burgers’ Southern Smokehouse Ham may be my favorite thing they produce.”
Next we donned white smocks, hair nets, and, in the case of Dave and Howard, beard nets. More Burgers’ staff joined our entourage for a private tour of the plant and behind-the-scenes view not offered on the usual visitors tour.
Moniteau County farmer E.M. Burger began producing and selling hams in the mid-1920s to supplement his farming income. Most poor farm families already raised at least a hog or two, did their own butchering and cured the hams. Burger, a savvy entrepreneur, realized that he could earn more from a cured ham than he could from an entire live hog. He learned about Old World curing methods, combining a mixture of salt, sugar and pepper to preserve meat, from his German mother. Most of Burger’s early customers didn’t have iceboxes or electricity for refrigeration so buying cured meat was practical for clients that could afford it. He sold hams to lawyers, doctors, other professionals and city residents with disposable income in Jefferson City, Sedalia, Columbia and other cities with growing populations.
Burger sold six hams in 1927 and doubled his sales a year later. By the 1930s – the era of the Great Depression and setting for John Steinbeck’s masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath, where tenant farmers were losing work – the enterprising Burger was curing and selling 24 hams each year himself.
He built a one-room, 1,500-square-foot Ham House on a bluff in 1952 to cure, age and smoke hams in larger quantities. The house overlooked the Moreau Creek, three miles south of California, on the farm of Burger’s father-in-law F. A. Bueker. The family completed farm work during the day and cured meat at night. Two decades after launching his farm-based business, Burgers’ production and sales to area restaurants and companies grew to 1,000 hams per year.
By 1956, the Ham House produced 5,000 hams annually. Burger began to devote more time to the ham business and less on farming. The business, incorporated as Burgers’ Ozark Country Cured Hams, continued to expand and became the first country cured meat company in the United States to receive federal inspection. The current 300,000-square-foot plant is built on and around the location of the original Ham House, which now serves as the central office. Annually, the family-owned smokehouse operation, now known as Burgers’ Smokehouse, produces 750,000 hams, bacon, sausage and other specialty meats.
Philip described the company’s position in the marketplace. He said, “Burgers’ is in the high-end specialty market versus the commodity market.” Sales split among direct retail, Internet, food service accounts, private label for mail order and private label grocery accounts.
Today, E.M. Burger’s grandson and Philip’s brother, Steven Burger, is president of Burgers’ Smokehouse. The family-owned business employs second- and third-generation family members as well as hundreds of area residents. While the founder began carving out a business selling cured ham decades earlier, Burgers’ Smokehouse considers 1952 as the official launch of the modern operation.
Howard, Dave and I absorbed historic details of the family business as we walked through the plant. The sheer volume of meat and efficiency of the operation fascinated us. At any given time, more than a quarter-million hams are hanging in some stage of curing, aging and smoking, and are tended to by a full-time staff of 200 employees—more during busy seasons.
The processing, storage and packing rooms are cold, as one might expect in a meat plant. Employees pay careful attention to operating procedures to ensure sanitary conditions and safety. We entered the cutting room where dozens of employees processed smoked meat to customer specifications.
Some hams are shuttled on a conveyor belt toward a machine where they pass under a camera that “maps” the ham’s shape. A computer determines the best way to slice the ham’s bulk into ham steaks. Two laser-guided water knifes use thin streams of water pressurized to 40,000 psi to precisely trim the meat into perfect cuts with no waste. The machine accurately trims 45 to 50 steaks a minute.
Nearby, pressed, chilled slabs of smoked pork belly met saw blades and transformed into slices of bacon and jowls. The regional accent of our hosts made jowl sound like “Joel” to me. Our tour guides were actually pointing at and talking about the lower part of the pig’s cheek. Basically, it was face bacon. In Italy, pork jowl is used to make guanciale, an Italian cured meat. More irregular and rounded in shape than strips of bacon, jowl is used to flavor dishes or eat by itself. Fried, baked or boiled, slender pieces of jowl add layers of flavor to a pot of beans or just about any dish.
Smaller pieces of ham were trimmed into “biscuit cuts” and packaged for sale. Long, chilled sections of smoked, pressed pork belly were layered like Lincoln logs to form a four-sided stack with space in the middle. Immediately, I dreamed of a bacon fort and tried to conceive of a way I could have one delivered to my home, where I would live in it and eat happily ever after.
We visited a large room where hickory sawdust is fed by the shovelful to a furnace. Fragrant smoke funneled into another room where hams were hung to absorb the rustic perfume. Burgers’ used to get all of its hickory from Kentucky and Tennessee forests, but has begun to obtain wood from southwest Missouri. The smoky aroma triggered the senses and made my mouth water, prompting thoughts about the flavor smoke imparts, followed by saltiness, sweetness and the familiar yet complex taste of the ham itself.
As Howard, Dave and I progressed through the tour, it was difficult to stop smiling. We had claimed our golden tickets. We were like three kids in “Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory,” hungry, wide-eyed guys surrounded by lots of ham and bacon.
Not All Hams are Equal
During our tour, Terry explained the difference between country ham and city ham. Country hams use traditional dry-curing methods, where the cure is applied to the surface of the ham in dry form and penetrates the meat naturally over time. The result of the drying and aging process, which takes a minimum of 120 days, creates a robust, pronounced flavor, dark interior color and firm texture. These hams taste saltier but that’s part of the delicious appeal.
Alternately, city hams are produced using modern moist-curing methods. A brine injected into the ham reduces the overall curing time, somewhere between 48 to 72 hours, compared to country ham. City hams are moist and tender with a characteristic sweet flavor and light pink color. While milder than country ham, the flavor of Burgers’ city ham is not bland. Try comparing it against a water-infused grocery store ham. There’s a flavor-filled world of difference.
Burgers’ country ham is sold in two varieties, Southern Smokehouse and Attic Aged country ham. The former ham is aged 4 to 6 months and then gently smoked with natural hickory sawdust, creating an authentic yet milder flavor. It’s more southern belle than rebel yell. In contrast, the Attic Aged ham spends more time hanging to age 7 to 9 months This unsmoked version harkens back to the way country ham was cured on the farm several generations ago. The lengthier aging creates a heightened salty flavor that is even more fully developed.
Beyond these time-tested methods of curing and smoking, other factors come into play that make Burgers’ Smokehouse dry-cured hams truly world-class. The company is located in a magical geographic belt for curing meats that spans the globe, a zone that extends east from Missouri through Virginia, across the Atlantic Ocean to Spain, southern Germany and northern Italy and even to southern China.
Culinary geographers may recognize that celebrated cured meats such as Italian prosciutto and Iberian ham (jamón Ibérico) from Spain fall within this zone. Jinhua ham, named after the eastern Chinese city in the Zhejiang province where it is produced, is yet another highly regarded dry-cured ham. The Chinese methods of processing and dry-curing this ham date back to the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD).
So what makes Burgers’ Smokehouse dry-cured hams and its global brethren so special? Dave Arnold eloquently explains the ham belt in a 2007 article (“Aging Gracefully”) for Food Arts:
Cold, but not freezing, winter weather was the first thing our ancestors needed to make a great dry-cured ham. If the climate was too cold, a whole ham would freeze before it could be cured in the classic technique; too warm, and the whole ham would spoil. The tradition of the dry-cured ham, therefore, wraps around the world in a distinct climate zone. This ham belt includes most of lower Europe and the Mediterranean, is interrupted by Islamic and Jewish interdictions on pork consumption, extremely high mountains, and vegetarian-based cultures, and picks up again in China, which has a fantastic dry-cured ham tradition (alas, no Chinese dry-cured hams are available in the United States.} The ham belt in this country threads through the south, extending from Virginia in the north to North Carolina (some say to northern Georgia) in the south and west through Tennessee and Kentucky to Missouri and northern Arkansas. There, in the Ozarks, the tradition stopped. There are no legendary Great Plains hams. Modern technology, however, has made it possible to dry-cure ham anywhere from the North Pole to the equator.
Call it a stroke of fate or good fortune for the rest of us – E. M. Burger set up his original Ham House in California, Missouri, an ideal climate for dry-curing ham where the weather is neither too cold nor warm. However, today Burgers’ certainly doesn’t rely on Mother Nature’s fickle mood and central Missouri’s shifting seasonal temperatures to impact the superior quality of its dry-cured hams. The company developed winter, spring and summer rooms, where the hams cure under specific conditions.
The hams are trimmed once fresh pork arrives from packing plants. A mixture of salt, brown sugar and pepper is hand-rubbed onto each ham. Then each one is wrapped in white paper, placed in cotton netting and hung on one of over 3,000 large wooden racks. Dave, Howard and I saw these mobile racks of ham firsthand, marveling at the quantity, quality measures put into place and the forethought applied to maintain these “ham cellars” that will one day yield delicious slices of meat.
The racks are moved into a “wintertime” room where the temperature is cold enough to prevent spoilage. This stage allows the cure to penetrate the meat and discourages future pathogen growth. Once the cure is absorbed, the paper is shucked from the ham and the meat is slipped back into the netting and re-hung. The ham racks are rolled to a “springtime” room, where moving air slowly dries the hams and the cure equalizes outside and in so flavor is consistent throughout.
Fine wine and certain cheeses take time to age and develop character. Similarly, aging dry-cured ham adds complexity to the flavor and serves a practical purpose. The racks are transported to a “summertime” room, where warmer temperatures pull grease from the ham, evaporate a small amount of moisture and concentrate the flavors.
Howard, Dave and I sensed the balmy shift in temperature and pronounced aroma of the hams in this room. The exact temperature, aging time and other factors were trade secrets that our hosts at Burgers’ declined to divulge. Finally, the hams are hickory smoked to complete the 4-6 month curing process.
California and Beyond
In addition to the scale and sophisticated operations of the plant, the sheer ingenuity and variety of Burgers’ product development was impressive. Their website, catalog and Visitor’s Center store offered hundreds of different items with multiple flavors and options. We saw city and country ham, summer sausage, country sausage, ham steaks, country bacon, thick-cut bacon and still thicker, quarter-inch bacon cuts dubbed bacon steak that were simply glorious. Bacon steak, when rubbed with brown sugar and baked in the oven, turns into bacon candy. Duly noted.
The plant also smoked, produced and sold cuts of beef, ribs and turkey. Dry rubs, jams, jellies, cheeses, snacks, sauces and other fare are sold individually or packaged for gift orders. Smoked, cured ham remained Burgers’ bread and butter, so to speak. Sales of their smoked ham and other products peaked during Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, but the plant remained busy year-round.
Fine-dining restaurants, chain restaurants and private label clients sell Burgers’ smoked meats throughout the country. Chef Howard Hanna at The Rieger and Chef Colby Garrelts at Rye use Burgers’ bacon and country ham for dishes on their menus. Howard anticipates serving Burgers’ center-cut slices of ham at Ça Va, his forthcoming champagne bar in Westport. 801 Chophouse uses Burgers’ thick slab bacon on its griddled bacon, lettuce, avocado and tomato sandwich. Broadway Butcher Shop in midtown Kansas City sells the company’s spiral cut hams and bacon, and customers might find that complex smoky flavor in the butcher shop’s biscuits and gravy on weekends. Elsewhere, famed Chef David Chang of momofuku has used Burgers’ smoked jowls in his recipe for Fuji Apple Salad With Kimchi, Smoked Jowl & Maple Labne.
Near and far, it’s no secret how good these smoked meats are. Fortunately, Burgers’ ham, bacon, and other products are also available at most major supermarkets in Kansas City. If not, a butcher can order it in or customers can simply order direct from Burgers’.
After the tour, our kind hosts at Burgers’ sent us home with a Smokehouse product of our choice. Unlike Charlie at the end of “Willy Wonka,” we didn’t return our gobstoppers. We had already won the prize of a lifetime.
Later, Dave concluded, “I was extremely impressed by the facility and production. It was to me an excellent compromise between modern production methods and artisanal products. It managed to be different than I had imagined but still exactly what I had hoped it would be.”
We shook hands with Terry and Philip, said our goodbyes and headed home, but not before we stopped for lunch at Vanilla Grill, a roadside burger stand in Tipton. We walked to the window counter, ordered lunch and chowed on burgers, hot dogs, onion rings and shakes. Afterward, we headed to the Dutch Bakery and loaded up on candy, cinnamon rolls and homemade pie. By the time we left the city limits and reached the interstate to conclude our pilgrimage, we couldn’t eat another bite. Drowsy and dreaming of ham and bacon, the hickory-laced aroma of Burgers’ Smokehouse infused in our clothes followed us all the way home.