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.