"The French can have their snails, and the English can have their plum pudding and goose, but I beg of you, give us the old stuffed ham."
THAT'S HOW Alice Shorter feels about her hams, and every time she stuffs one with cabbage and onions, celery and kale, she is carrying on a tradition that has been in her St. Mary's County, Md., family for at least 120 years, probably a lot longer than that.
Southern Maryland stuffed hams are unique to that region of the country, a peninsula bounded by the Patuxent and Potomac rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. With rare exceptions, their fame has not spread. Ask most Washingtonians, a mere 60 or so miles to the north, about stuffed ham and you might as well be asking about the native dish of Micronesia. But Shorter's brother-in-law reports having seen stuffed hams in Bossier City, La., where the restaurant had the grace to give credit where it was due -- more or less: "Maryland Stuffed Hams," the sign read. But you won't find these hams in Cumberland County or Baltimore unless a native of St. Mary's County has moved there.
Stuffing any part of a hog with greens is a slave tradition from the days when St. Mary's County was dotted with tobacco plantations. At hog-killing time, about the time of the first frost, the master of the plantation got the hams, sausages and bacon; the slaves got what was left: feet, intestines, tongue, the lower part of the stomach called the sow-belly, liver and the hog's head. The liver was cooked with cornmeal in stock, making a much tastier mush. That's what we call scrapple today. The top part of the hog's head, including the ears and snout, were chopped coarsely and combined with vinegar. That was called souse.
The lower part of the jaw, called the jowl, was smoked just like the hams and bacon. According to a bicentennial cookbook, "300 Years of Black Cooking in St. Mary's County, Maryland," "Holidays were days when the jowls were taken out of the smokehouse and distributed to the slaves. Some slaves were allowed to tend small vegetable gardens from which they took such vegetables as greens (kale), cabbage, 'greasy greens' (wild watercress), turnip tops, or any green that was plentiful. The greens were chopped, and stuffed into pockets in the 'jowl,' or jaw bones. This was tied up in a rag and boiled until it was tender. When cooled, this made a very tasty meal. . ."
Somewhere along the way the master tasted stuffed jowl and, in a moment of creative genius, decided that if stuffed jowl tasted so good, a ham stuffed the same way would be even better. Thus was made an anonymous but great contributions to America's culinary heritage.
"It's all that flavor mingled together," Alice Shorter said as she made another "X" in the ham and stuffed the hole until it couldn't take any more greens before making another X and stuffing it. ". . .The cabbage and onion, the seasonings, the pepper. My ham is not like my sister's," Shorter said. "She never wilts her cabbage. I always wilt mine because it blends the flavors better. If you don't wilt cabbage and celery it's hard to stuff it."
The greens seem to "gentle down" the ham's sharp flavor. "When people taste it for the first time they are really surprised," Shorter said as she prepared to put the stuffed ham into a cheesecloth bag.
"It really is time consuming. It takes me an hour to stuff a ham," Shorter said. "But I love it. I cater for my church and for realtives' weddings." Shorter prepared stuffed ham in Washington for many years. She lived here for 35 years before returning this summer to the home where she was born in Ridge, Md.
Shorter has been stuffing ham since she was 12. "When we grew up we would stuff ham for Mama if she had to work late. If we went to church the next day, the aroma of stuffed ham would rise up from our white-gloved hands. We would smile in anticipation of what was to follow when we got home."
What was to follow usually included oysters (another souther Maryland specialty) in some form -- breaded or pancakes -- plus scalloped potatoes, sweet potato pudding, mashed turnips, peas, cattage cheese salad with stuffed eggs and pies for dessert, though today Shorter makes a delicious, moist apple cake.
At Christmas stuffed ham was served for breakfast after church as well as for dinner. "You'd be surprised how well stuffed ham goes with all those things you have at breakfast: freshly squeezed orange juice, country sausage, hash brown potatoes, eggs, hot apple sauce, peach preserves, hot biscuits and butter." She adds that the ham "tastes just delicious hot. Some people like it better hot than cold."
During what Shorter calls the "stuffed ham season," from Thanksgiving to Easter, the family used to have six stuffed "hams," three hams from the pigs they slaughtered and three shoulders. You can stuff shoulders, too.
To keep the greens in while the ham is cooking, it must be encased in some kind of cloth sack. Today Shorter uses one made of cheesecloth, but her mother used flour sacks, even old pillowcases that had been washed and boiled. What greens are left over after every possible hole has been stuffed are laid on top of the ham in the sack. Then the sack is tied and the ham boiled about five hours. Before it can be removed from the sack it must be cooled for several hours ("so all the flavors can go back in") or overnight. Shorter always puts it out on the porch where it's cool. Then it must be drained for another hour. Only after that can it be sliced.
Shorter doesn't want the art of ham stuffing to be lost, so she has trained the next generation to take over. "I want the younger people to pick it up, too. My niece can stuff it just as good as I can. They all learn it when they're young.
"It's important to pass things on. If you pass it on, the younger ones will know how we made it through, that things weren't bad, we had plenty to eat (you can tell by looking at me) and we were kept warm. We raised our own vegetables, had our own chickens and hogs. We even had a cow, named Louise."
Shorter and her family never gave names to their hogs. They weren't pets. They had only one mission in life . . . to become stuffed hams. SOUTHERN MARYLAND STUFFED HAM (25 to 30 servings) 4 large green cabbages 2 quarts kale 6 medium onions 1 bunch celery 3 red hot peppercorns or 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper 1 teaspoon black pepper Salt to taste 2 teaspoons dry mustard or mustard seed 18- to 20-pound precooked ham (some St. Mary's cooks use corned or country hams)
Wash greens and chop cabbage, kale, celery and onions medium-fine. Chop peppercorns fine. Put vegetables and seasonings in large pot with water almost to the top of the vegetables. Bring to a boil; stir. Cover the pot and turn heat off. Let vegetables wilt for about 10 minutes. Drain and reserve cooking water for cooking the ham. Cool vegetables long enough so you can handle them.
Starting on the underside of the ham, make an "X", about 1-inch long and between 1/2-inch and 1-inch deep. Stuff hole with some greens until no more will fit in. Continue making "Xs" as close together as possible all over the ham, and stuffing them, until you can't find any more places to put holes. Place the ham in a double-thickness cheesecloth. Place any remaining greens on top of the ham; tie bag and place in pot with liquid drained from cooking the vegetables and any left in the pan in which the vegetables were placed. Use water to cover the ham with liquid.
Cover pot and bring liquid to boil. Reduce heat to soft boil and cook ham about five or six hours, until tender. Add water as needed to keep ham covered. Cool in cooking liquid, in a cool place. Then drain ham for an hour. Remove from sack and slice. BREADED OYSTERS
Combine pancake mix with seafood seasoning. Roll oysters in mixture and fry in vegetable shortening ("don't use oil -- it makes things tough, including fried chicken") until golden brown on both sides. Drain and serve hot. SCALLOPED POTATOES (8 to 10 servings)
How many people this recipe serves is really determined by how many other things are served with it. At one of the Shorters' feasts, this recipe would serve more than 10. 6 potatoes, pared and cut in thin slices 3 onions, sliced Salt and pepper to taste Flour Butter Milk
Put a layer of potatoes in buttered 3-quart baking dish. Cover with layer of onions; sprinkle with salt and pepper and flour. Dot with butter. Repeat until all of potatoes and onions are used. Add milk until it can be seen through top layer. Bake at 350 degrees until potatoes are done and brown on top, about 1 1/2 hours. COTTAGE CHEESE MOLDED SALAD (10 to 12 servings) 2 6-ounce packages lemon gelatin 1 1/2 cups hot water 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 cup evaporated milk 1/2 cup white vinegar 24 ounces cottage cheese 1 cup mayonnaise 6 tablespoons coarsely grated carrots 2 cups medium to finely chopped celery 1 teaspoon chopped green pepper 1 teaspoon minced onion
Dissolve gelatin in hot water; add salt and stir. Add mayonnaise and stir.
Add milk and vinegar and mix well. Add remaining ingredients, mix well and pour into bundt mold. Chill for several hours, or overnight, until mold is firm. To serve, unmold. APPLE CAKE (12 servings) 2 cups sugar 1/2 cup butter 2 eggs 8 apples, peeled, cored and diced 2 cups flour 1 teaspoon nutmeg 1/2 teaspoon salt 2 teaspoons baking soda 1 teaspoon cinnamon
Cream sugar and butter until light yellow. Beat in eggs. Stir in apples. Add dry ingredients and mix well. Pour into greased bundt pan and bake at 350 degrees about 45 minutes. Cool in pan and turn out. b