Eileen and Perry Lawry didn't even know what stuffed ham was until the Southern Maryland delicacy showed up on the buffet table at their 1997 wedding in Queen Anne's County.

For the Pennsylvania natives, it was love at first bite.

But finding the festive red-and-green concoction at home in Anne Arundel County has been a challenge for the Shady Side couple. So, when Eileen Lawry, 38, checked the papers for a fun holiday activity this season, the 15th annual Ham Stuffing Party in St. Mary's County caught her eye.

The morning of Dec. 21, she joined a small group from the St. George Island Improvement Association for its yearly lesson in ham stuffing.

"It's a lot easier to stuff a ham with helpers than it is to do it by yourself," said Gerry Wood of Lexington Park, who organizes the event.

Wood created the holiday party 15 years ago because she wanted to learn how to stuff a ham, a tradition that dates to the era of slavery in America, she said. Owners gave their slaves only a small ham, Wood said, so they stuffed the meat with vegetables from the fields to make it last longer.

The stuffing, which typically did -- and still does -- include kale, cabbage, collards and onions, enlarged the ham to almost twice its size, she said. It tasted so good that the practice stuck. Today, stuffed hams are staples at local fairs and are offered at various holiday times by grocery stores.

"It's juicy and wonderful and tasty," said Wood, who stuffed a 10-pound ham this year. "It's real colorful and festive."

Eggnog, holiday music and cookies supplemented the St. George Island cooking extravaganza. Participants brought their own fresh or corned ham, greens, spices and cooking container.

Eileen Lawry lugged a 22-pound ham -- too big, she said afterward -- for her first attempt at ham stuffing. She had seen recipes for the specialty before but thought it would be too hard to make on her own.

At the party, others pitched in with her vegetable chopping and stuffing. The men helped tie up the finished products with cheesecloth and string.

The hams take four to five hours to cook at a low simmer, Wood said. Lawry turned to a neighbor to borrow a pan large enough for her hunk of corned ham. Even after eating some of the masterpiece and giving some away, she still had leftovers to freeze for later.

"It was time-consuming, but they made it seem easy," said Lawry, who drove an hour and a half from Shady Side for the festivities. "I don't know if I would attempt it in my own kitchen."

Perry Lawry might object to that. According to his wife, the homemade stuffed ham was "the best my husband has ever had," she said. He dug in before the ham had cooled.

"So I think I will have to try one again," she said.

Eileen Lawry of Shady Side stuffs away at the annual ham stuffing party sponsored by the St. George Island Improvement Association to carry on the area culinary tradition.Sam Jarboe, left, shows first-timer Eileen Lawry how her stuffing mixture of cabbage, kale, onions and spices should be cooked. Jarboe is a member of the St. George Island Improvement Association.