“Not too many people do what we do anymore,” says Dee Dee Darden. “Farming, running the little store, doing the hams, it’s a way of life here – independence, working with family and friends, getting involved in the community, preserving what we have for the future. If you ask Dee Dee’s husband of 32 years, Tommy what the best part of this life is, he’ll tell you “All of it.!”
That attitude and way of life is why when folks stop by Smithfield’s Visitor Center and ask where they can learn more about Smithfield’s world-famous hams, we send them out to Darden’s Country Store. Whether it’s visitors, school children or locals, as soon as they step inside Darden’s, they know this is the real deal. And we know that not only will they learn all they want to about our area’s rich agricultural tradition, but they will get to meet the Darden’s, who will treat them with their own special brand of warmth and hospitality that they are world famous for.
As Dee Dee says, “The Darden ham gets around! We’ve been featured on The Food Network with Tyler Florence (Tyler’s Ultimate, Episode TU1B07), Southern Living, Virginia Living, Hampton Roads Magazine, and The New York Times.” Of course, Dee Dee would be too modest to mention that in 2012 she was named the “Southeast Farm Mom of the Year” by Monsanto, and just recently, Darden’s was selected #4 in the “Best Tasting Country Ham Sandwich in Virginia” competition in the USA TODAY’s Reader’s Choice Contest.
So if you haven’t been to Darden’s you are missing a treat. “We’ve been curing hams, and making pork sausage and whole hog North Carolina-style Barbecue since the early 1950s. We have a small grocery store that offers the necessities of life, plus sandwiches, soft drinks, homemade sausage, ham, cheese, peanuts and local honey. Tucked in the far end of the three-aisle store is a small room that is always warm – not the warmth of heaters or the warmth of a hot summer, but the kind of warm that comes from shared times, good and bad. There’s a little bench, two wooden wobbly stools, and one kitchen stool in the corner. The floor space is probably big enough for a man to flap his wings to make a snow angel. Young, old, and older have been coming here for generations. There’s always something warm going on; local news discussed, friends catching up. The hardest thing to do here – is leave.”
But don’t be fooled by the size of the store, Darden’s is a 500-acre working farm that hosts about a thousand visitors and school children each year. They grow peanuts, corn, cotton, soybeans, wheat and pumpkins, and are raising about 60 head of beef cattle, 9 goats, 1 donkey and 3 sheep. And on top of all that they cure over 1,000 hams annually.
And If the Darden’s are available, they’re happy to offer one and all a tour of their smokehouse. “This is a lost art. Today you can’t even find a pot big enough to cook a ham in. Here in Virginia, ham is a traditional food, but everywhere else it’s now considered more of a delicacy. Curing hams, smoking ’em – the way we do it is the way Tommy’s daddy did it. The way we salt ’em, the way we stack ’em takes a personal touch. We work individually with each ham ’til we get it right.”
Dee Dee and Tommy are proud Virginians. In fact, they were asked to represent the country ham tradition at the 8th Annual Folk Festival in Richmond in 2012. “Promoting Virginia products, eating good ole southern Virginia food, it just doesn’t get any better than this. Freshness, flavor and nutrition are premium when your food doesn’t incur travel or the addition of preservatives.”
The Darden’s also have a booth at the Smithfield’s Farmer’s Market each week. “The market is a fantastic way to sample local delicacies and support your local farmers, fishermen and artisans.” (The Smithfield Framers Market runs every Saturday from 9 a.m. until noon, April through October at the Bank of Southside VA parking lot, 115 Main Street in downtown Smithfield.
Aside from setting up the hams in January, the fall may be the Darden’s busiest season. From September through November, they host school children, their teachers, parents, Scouts, church groups, youth groups, and well – anyone who wants to come by. Visitors enjoy the scenery, the hams, chocolate covered peanuts, pumpkins, and gourds. Hay rides are offered on the weekends.
Not every working farm takes the time to host so many visitors as graciously as the Darden’s do. But these folks are passionate about telling the farm life story. “Visitors get to pick crops from the farm and learn how they are used in everyday products. They get to meet and interact with farm animals, play hide and seek in “Hay-land,” choose a pumpkin from the patch, and to simply enjoy a day on the farm.” Sounds like a great way to spend an autumn day!
But don’t wait until then to stop by Darden’s. Come by any time. Grab some ham slices and homemade cheese. Hang out with the locals a bit and taste a bit of pure Virginia tradition dating as far back as colonial times when Queen Victoria herself had a standing order for Smithfield Hams. “The Ham Biscuit,” Dee Dee says, “is a quintessential Southern staple and treat; tender slices of hickory and apple wood smoked Darden ham resting comfortably in a proper biscuit. Darden hams throw a flavor party with every bite. It’s addictive. It’s irresistible. It’s a thin slice of hog heaven.”
Darden’s Country Store & Smokehouse
16249 Bowling Green Road (On the corner of Bowling Green Road & Carroll Bridge Road, just 7 miles from downtown Smithfield)
Smithfield, VA 23431
Monday through Friday. 7:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m.
Saturdays from 10:00 a.m. until -5:00 p.m.
Open on Sundays during the month of October