When construction companies hoist the last structural beam for a building project, it’s a tradition to mount an evergreen tree on top of the final beam.

Earlier this year, for the raising of the final piece of structural steel for CALS’ new Meat Science and Animal Biologics Discovery facility, the construction crew decided to forgo tradition and use a material they had on hand: dry-cured hams.

The beam is lifted into place.

The JP Cullen crew hung two hams from the beam before it was lifted into place, and then quickly returned them to the company’s construction trailer—to continue the aging process. The two dry-cured hams are among six that were salted during a special ham salting ceremony at the kick-off event for the facility’s construction.

“We gave two of the hams to JP Cullen to have a friendly ‘who can make a better dry-cured ham’ competition,” says Jeff Sindelar, associate professor of animal sciences and UW-Extension meat specialist, who has been overseeing the curing and aging process of the hams. The other four hams are hanging in the current Meat Lab building.

After the initial salting ceremony, Sindelar explains, the salted hams were held in a cooler for three weeks to remove moisture from the meat, which reduces the water activity to the point where bacteria can no longer grow. The hams were then moved to 50F for a month, to continue the drying process, and then to room temperature for long-term aging.

The ham was originally salted by (left to right) UW–Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank, CALS Dean & Director Kate VandenBosch, former DATCP Secretary Ben Brancel and Chris Salm of Salm Partners, LLC on Oct. 14, 2016.

“During the aging process, enzymes in the meat break down the fat, protein and other compounds to create the unique and highly desirable aromas and flavors found in dry-aged ham,” explains Sindelar. “At this point, the hams are shelf stable, so it’s just a matter of removing the outer skin and they are ready for consumption,” says Sindelar.

And consume them we will.

The plan is to skin, trim and serve the hams at the Meat Science and Animal Biologics Discovery facility’s grand opening event, which is on schedule to take place this coming winter.