In many Southern Maryland homes, a corned ham stuffed with spices and vegetables is an essential offering on special occasions. It's a regional dish rich in flavor and history.

It is a tradition that the St. George Island Improvement Association is keeping alive with the ham stuffing party it puts on every year just before Christmas. The group hosted its 17th annual holiday ham event Saturday.

This is a bring-your-own-ham party where participants can learn the stuffing technique and how to prepare the dish.

Many Southern Marylanders don't seem quite sure where the custom came from. Some say the first English settlers brought it over on the Arc and the Dove. The early colonists, this explanation goes, used ingredients from the supply ships and put things together until a dish something like what is eaten today was created.

Another explanation links the tradition to the era of slavery in the American colonies. Owners gave their slaves only a small ham, so they stuffed the meat with vegetables from the fields to make it last longer. The stuffing, which did and still does typically include kale, cabbage, collards and onions, enlarged the ham to almost twice its normal size. It tasted so good that the practice stuck. Today, stuffed hams are staples at local fairs and are offered at various holiday times by country stores.

Making stuffed ham is quite simple. Deep slits -- something like pockets -- are cut into the ham and filled with spices and vegetables. Whether the stuffing includes cabbage, watercress or collards depends on where people live. The method is the same, but if you're using equal parts of kale and cabbage, you are probably from St. Mary's County. Kale and collards link you to Calvert County; and in Charles County, watercress is the green of choice.

Whatever the greens, throughout Southern Maryland the spices tend to be pretty much the same -- mustard seed and red pepper. But there is always a little variation.

Gerry Wood, left, of the St. George Island Improvement Association helps Eileen Lawry of Shady Side with her ham. The group works to preserve the dish.Nicole Faulkner of Glen Burnie stuffs a ham for the first time at the St. George Island Improvement Association's event last week.