The American cuisine bandwagon has set us on a mad search for regional recipes to freshen our menus. Cheese grits are being served in California. New England's fiddlehead ferns are found on Midwestern menus.
Even so, a few dishes remain undiscovered, dishes so local as to never be seen outside their own county. Usually they are found in rustic farmhouse restaurants or aged inns. In St. Mary's County, Md., though, cabbage-and-kale-stuffed ham, a regional specialty little-known and nearly extinct, is being preserved in the most unlikely site, the Belvedere Motor Inn in Lexington Park.
No restored Victorian mansion, the Belvedere is a mere 20 years old. It looks like any standard two-story motel that caters to parties of fishermen and the local Navy base. Rotary Club banners line the entrance wall and a disco-loud bar does a good business behind the lobby.
Given this ordinariness, the Belvedere's dining room is a surprise. The front half is a forest of Tiffany lamps -- real Tiffany lamps, two dozen of them. They hang at four-foot intervals from the beamed ceiling. The walls are even more densely decorated, every foot apart is a painting ranging from renaissance still-life to a John Wayne portrait. The salad bar stretches across an entire wall.
Traditional, but a hodgepodge of the world's traditions rather than a museum-piece, The Belvedere specializes in blue margaritas as well as Chesapeake Bay seafood. Eclectic doesn't mean slapdash, though: The salad bar features cut-up fresh fruit and down-home potato and macaroni salads. Vegetables are served at the table family-style, three of them besides the salad bar. On the mariner's platter the seafoods are freshly breaded, the shrimps jumbo and the oysters plump and local. Crab dishes are well-made -- this is just whispering distance from the Chesapeake -- and best-sellers.
But the Belvedere is most worthy of historic preservation because of its St. Mary's County Stuffed Ham. Sometimes served as a main dish, sometimes an appetizer, always cold unless a diner requests it be heated, The Belvedere's stuffed ham is so popular, especially during Christmas and Easter, that people order it whole, half or by the pound to take home or for gifts.
The Belvedere uses corned ham. It has the firm, coarse texture of country ham but is brined with pickling spices. Some recipes call for plain country ham. As tradition dictates, pockets are cut throughout the ham, so it is a web of "X"s, and it is stuffed with the unlikely combination of cabbage and kale, seasoned with plenty of pepper. In the Belvedere's hams the cabbage outweighs the kale. But the hams are still strongly grassy with the bitter finish of kale, and powerfully peppered with black and red pepper and mustard seed. Onion and celery seed add a sweeter aroma. Once the ham slits are poked to bursting, the ham is wrapped in cheesecloth to hold the stuffing intact; then it is boiled, cooled and sliced thin, each slice piled with stuffing.
The recipe is centuries old, a legacy of this tobacco country's slave tradition. In the early days it was made with hog jowl, one of the parts turned over to the slaves after the master took the hams, bacon and sausages from the smokehouse. The stuffing was what the garden yielded. As irony would have it, the melding of flavors was so good that evolution and privilege gave this homey recipe a more elegant turn -- with greens stuffed into the more valuable hams rather than leftover jowls.
As with any folk recipe, St. Mary's Stuffed Ham has as many variations as cooks -- only there aren't so many cooks doing it nowadays. Some stuff the greens in raw, others wilt them first. Some use fresh celery, others celery seed. Some make it hotter than others, and the ratio of red to black pepper depends on each cook's taste. Some stuff the shoulder instead of the ham, and instead of boiling it in cheesecloth might wrap it in a flour sack or pillowcase. All would agree it is a time-consuming project. At the only other restaurant where I found it, the labor had been short-cut by piling peppered kale stuffing on slices of spongy supermarket ham.
Following a recent column on homemade birthday cakes, I've been hearing about restaurant versions of birthday cakes. The most tempting so far is at Cafe des Artistes in Manhattan. It is a small heart-shaped puff pastry, for crispness' sake filled at the last minute with whipped cream and berries. I'd be glad to hear of any others that offer strong competition to this one.
Austin, Tex., is developing into a food capital. The first branch of Simon David, Dallas' glamorous super-grocery, has just opened in Austin with 2/3 more space than the original store. And in the fall Goodnight Cafe will be opened by Reed Hearon, sous chef of Mark Miller's Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe. And Miller will be consultant.
ST. MARY'S COUNTY STUFFED HAM (25 to 30 servings)
4 large cabbages
2 quarts kale
1 bunch celery or 2 teaspoons celery seed
3 red hot peppers, finely minced, or 1 teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon black pepper
Salt to taste
2 teaspoons mustard seed
18- to 20-pound corned ham or country ham
Coarsely chop cabbage, kale, onions and celery. Combine raw vegetables with all the seasonings, or blanch first if desired: Cover with water, bring to a boil and turn off heat. Let sit, covered, for 10 minutes and drain well, saving the water for cooking the ham.
Cut "X"s about 1 inch deep and 2 inches long all around the ham, close together. Stuff each "X" with as much of the stuffing as will fit. Wrap ham in double-thickness cheesecloth and put any remaining stuffing on top of the ham; tie closed. In a large pot put a pie pan or plate upside down and put the ham on top of it. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, 5 1/2 hours, adding more water if necessary. Let cool, drain ham well and chill. Remove cheesecloth and slice thin. Serve cold, with some of the stuffing on each slice.