A Rit­ual of Ham

Food & Wine - - EDITOR'S LETTER -

THERE’S AN EN­TRY ON p. 754 of my grand­mother’s 1964 edi­tion of Joy of Cook­ing that de­fines eter­nity as “a ham and two peo­ple. But one may while away the time more than tol­er­a­bly if he re­mem­bers to serve the choicer parts of a ham first.”

This time of year, when coun­try ham is on my menus from Christ­mas to be­yond New Year’s, they’re all the choicer parts. Hol­i­day prep starts when a box post­marked Madis­onville, Ten­nessee, lands on my doorstep smelling of hick­ory smoke and glo­ri­ous ham funk. In­side is a 14-pound, 24-month-aged hind leg of pig from Al­lan Benton’s smoke­house.

For years I ad­hered to the tra­di­tional South­ern ap­proach: I soaked my hams in sev­eral changes of wa­ter, scrubbed them, and sim­mered or slow-baked them. That was be­fore I spent an af­ter­noon with Benton at his out­fit, see­ing the hams hang­ing in var­i­ous stages of ma­tu­rity. He re­minded me about the care, time, and la­bor—the butcher­ing, salt­ing, smok­ing, and wait­ing— that goes into cre­at­ing a prod­uct on par with the best pro­sciutto of Italy or jamón ibérico of Spain.

My ham plan now goes like this: Three days be­fore Christ­mas, I fas­ten the ham to a stand and re­move the thick, leath­ery skin and out­er­most layer of brown fat, re­veal­ing the pearles­cent white fat and ruby-red flesh un­der­neath. Us­ing a long, thin blade, I slice the ham as thinly as pos­si­ble to share with friends and fam­ily along­side glasses of Cham­pagne and plat­ters of oys­ters.

On Christ­mas morn­ing, slightly thicker slices go into a hot cast-iron skil­let to crisp the fat be­fore be­ing stuffed into but­ter­milk biscuits slathered with fig pre­serves. A few days later, some of the trim and bone go into a broth for black-eyed peas and col­lards that will be­come a hop­pin’ John stew for New Year’s. Next comes a big batch of split pea soup. And fi­nally, the skin and scraps get por­tioned and frozen as treats for Birdie, our salty fam­ily dog.

Think­ing about ham for the hol­i­days? Check out our guide on p. 27, fea­tur­ing recipes and tips. For my fel­low Joy of Cook­ing fans, read about the fas­ci­nat­ing his­tory of the fam­ily be­hind the book in “Ode to Joy” (p. 93) by con­trib­u­tor Kat Kins­man. Cook­ing for friends and fam­ily? Go all out and source the best birds (p. 110), bub­bles (pp. 67 and 68), or even white truf­fles (p. 54).

This De­cem­ber is­sue fea­tures only the choicer parts. From my ta­ble to yours, happy hol­i­days.


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