Ham and Easter, a match made in . . . another era?

April 2, 2012

The Ham Dance is upon us once again. A time for standing in front of the refrigerated section of the supermarket and wishing for divine intervention — to help choose the right ham for Easter.

A wet-cured “city” ham that is succulent and moist, without any graininess, without being so rubbery it will bounce, maybe to the ceiling, or oozing so much water during cooking that it is dry and stringy. It is a time to sway rhythmically, looking at one ham, then the other, moving from foot to foot in indecision.

Imagine a wet-cured ham worthy of our forefathers. It would be bountiful, bursting with flavor, the knife sliding through it, slicing it just thick enough to hold the sugary glaze. Instead, the refrigerator case confronts us with information printed in tiny letters on a vacuum-sealed package. Most of us have to pull out our “readers” to get the gist of it.

“Water added” means it is 10 percent water. “Ham and water” means up to 37 percent water. (How does one figure out the per-pound price of something that is 37 percent water?) Some of the hams are marbled or mottled. I suspect they were injected with the brine for 24 hours rather than given a long slow brining. My instinct is they also were injected with just enough smoke flavoring to leave a long-lasting harsh taste on the strings of the meat. Of course they are cheaper, the word that gives true meaning to “less expensive.”

There are cured hams that are just called “Ham,” meaning no extra water. But why don’t they brag if they were brined long and slow and then smoked with tender loving hands turning them? Why are hams different colors; some pale and wan, some rosy pink? The choices are dizzying. There is bone-in, bone-out, shank end, butt end, shank with center cut, butt end with center cut, cooked, partially cooked and more. The USDA requires all this labeling, and cooking instructions, in English. But I wonder whether the directions were written by someone who has actually cooked a ham? This is one time when price and reputation matter.

This love of city ham injected or soaked with brine, turned pink by nitrates, eludes me. I wonder if it is I who am at fault in this relationship. Maybe I never have purchased the right type of ham.

Certainly, my mother didn’t.

Her canned hams were a primrose pink and came in cans shaped like the nose cone of a space rocket, like ostrich eggs with the bottom fourth removed and flattened. They were instantly recognizable in the same way cranberry jelly with ring marks from the can is at Thanksgiving. Glazed with brown sugar and topped with pineapple rings, the ritual maraschino cherries in the center of the rings, the memorable mostly for my mother’s ham was the maraschino cherry glaze, which I made. Any ham tastes good if you eat only the glaze. I am the Queen of Glazes.

A whole ham, weighing up to around 25 pounds before brining and smoking, doesn’t work for modest-size families. The butt half, down to perhaps six pounds, is supposed to be leaner, have more meat and be more flavorful; the shank half is said to be a better value because it has less connective tissue, but it may have more fat. My mother’s weighed about two pounds, so she would cook two if she felt so moved and we had any money. Ham was an upscale switch from meatloaf, chicken, tuna casserole and spaghetti.

Mother was of Danish origin; she believed most canned ham came from Denmark and referred to it as Danish ham. It would sit there, on the refrigerator shelf, at the ready for Easter or emergencies like funerals. (At Southern funeral home visitations, there are usually more hams than people.)

It was the primrose color that ham producers think we are used to seeing. The color is the result of nitrates and salts. Colors are frequently added to food products to ensure they are not put to unintended uses; for instance, rice that has been treated for seed planting is dyed pink. So are some salts used for the preservation of ham.

Surrounding an opened canned ham is feather-boa-pink gelatin, a perfect color for something being tossed around the arms of a party girl, not surrounding meat. The gelatin is added to the hams in the can to capture and set their juices as they shrink from being cooked in the can. Hence, “Ham with Natural Juices.” Even though I was known for being willing to try anything, everyone in my family thought I was a ghoul for eating the gelatin, doubting it was edible. I thought it tasted better than the ham. When I tasted aspic in culinary school, I realized that my first aspic was the pink boa of my younger days: gelatin and meat juices.

It is the thought of my mother’s leftover ham that rattles me still. The meat would glisten, taking on a green, rainbow iridescent shimmer. We were told it was fine, just fine, to eat because the nitrates turned it that color. Leftover ham was slick to the touch. It was cut into thick fingers to go into salads. It did, in fact, look like fingers, but it was called “julienned” ham. We prayed for the last of the leftover ham to be gone, as my mother, with three children to feed, would keep food in the refrigerator until it decomposed. Giving whole new meaning to a phrase attributed to Dorothy Parker: “Eternity is two people and a ham.”

However, there is one kind of ham I never tire of enjoying at other peoples’ parties: a name-brand, spiral-cut, honey-glazed ham. It has enough crunchy sweetness to please most of us, so no pineapple rings or reglazing. Some care seems to have been taken in the type of pig and brine. That care, by the home cook, most likely secured the title for ham of Easter Ham. It makes sense, too, as a dry ham cured in the fall would be ready for eating by the spring, and Easter was the big holiday.

Next year, I am giving up the Ham Dance. My friend is going to show me how to brine fresh pork leg to cure my own ham.

This year, I am going to cook lamb.

Dupree, a cookbook author, food journalist and expert on Southern food, lives in Charleston, S.C. She joins today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.

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