As Tastes Change, So Does The Big Pink Meat on the Table

By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Holiday hams are an evolving breed. Don't let the familiar shiny glazes and foil wrapping fool you into thinking otherwise.

Over the past four decades, American consumers have nudged the ham trade to start with leaner hogs, fiddle with the meat's appearance and increase the convenience of a product they buy in bulk no more than once or twice a year.

The chances of finding the whole- or half-ham of your dreams, be it a brine-cured, glazed city ham or a dry-cured country ham, is much better in springtime. That's because retail stores and online purveyors have gotten past the crush of the Thanksgiving-Christmas season, which accounts for the majority of their annual sales.

Harry J. Hoenselaar's innovations provide a good starting point for those who wonder how holiday hams came to be sweet and shiny. He's the Detroit businessman who put his all into creating Honeybaked hams, starting with his first spiral slicer patent in 1949. A classic tinkerer-inventor, he also developed a glaze to help set his product apart and to help keep it moist, since slicing a whole ham could dry it out faster.

His hams were the first in America to be marketed with a sweet, spicy, crunchy exterior. When the spiral slicer patent ran out in the 1980s (he died in 1974), ham retailers built their own machines and the feature became widespread, for boneless hams as well.

Today, Hoenselaar's grandson Craig Kurz is chief executive of the family-owned Honeybaked Ham Co., which has 410 company and franchise stores nationwide. Kurz, a youthful 45, reports that, yes, the glaze still contains honey and the same other ingredients his grandfather used. Cooked hams are shipped to the stores uncoated, and the glaze is applied while warm and bubbly, within 24 hours before customer purchase.

"I started working with holiday hams when I was in the seventh grade," Kurz said by phone from his Cincinnati office last week. He maintains a hands-on approach, helping to open new stores. (He was behind the counter at the opening of the Reston shop eight years ago.)

Honeybaked hams have a 20 percent longer cooking, smoking and dry-curing cycle than in the old days because the meat is leaner now, he says, but the flavor profile will remain the same. No low-sodium versions or maple alternatives are in the works. "We've looked at different things, but our consumers keep saying, 'Don't mess with our Honeybaked ham.' "

Honeybaked bought its biggest competitor, the Heavenly Ham Co., in 2002; both are known for glazed city hams. Getting that glaze just so is something of a trade secret, but former Heavenly Ham franchise owner Gary Ashburn is willing to shed light on the process he was taught. "There's an ability to it," the Asheville, N.C., resident says with a friendly drawl and an air of understatement.

"A gas torch in the left hand, a packet of sugar in the right hand," he says. "Sprinkle on the sugar and let it melt down the sides of the ham without getting burnt. Once the right amount has melted, you picked up a cup of the powdered glaze mix, which reminded you of cinnamon sugar. With the torch still running, you sprinkled that mix over the melted sugar and glazed the meat."

He admits he made a much better front-of-the-shop salesman than glazer. "To be honest, I never mastered it," he says. His son did, though.

Ashburn, 60, says the customer request that always struck him as the most peculiar had to do with the fat streak running through a bone-in ham. "They didn't want it. That always amused me. Most hams have a bit more flavor with a decent amount of that fat streak," he says.

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