A Ritual of Ham
There's an entry on page 754 of my grandmother’s 1964 edition of Joy of Cooking that defines eternity as “a ham and two people. But one may while away the time more than tolerably if he remembers to serve the choicer parts of a ham first.”
This time of year, when country ham is on my menus from Christmas to beyond New Year’s, they’re all the choicer parts. Holiday prep starts when a box postmarked Madisonville, Tennessee, lands on my doorstep smelling of hickory smoke and glorious ham funk. Inside is a 14-pound, 24-month-aged hind leg of pig from Allan Benton’s smokehouse.
For years I adhered to the traditional Southern approach: I soaked my hams in several changes of water, scrubbed them, and simmered or slow-baked them. That was before I spent an afternoon with Benton at his outfit, seeing the hams hanging in various stages of maturity. He reminded me about the care, time, and labor—the butchering, salting, smoking, and waiting—that goes into creating a product on par with the best prosciutto of Italy or jamón ibérico of Spain.
My ham plan now goes like this: Three days before Christmas, I fasten the ham to a stand and remove the thick, leathery skin and outermost layer of brown fat, revealing the pearlescent white fat and ruby-red flesh underneath. Using a long, thin blade, I slice the ham as thinly as possible to share with friends and family alongside glasses of Champagne and platters of oysters.
On Christmas morning, slightly thicker slices go into a hot cast-iron skillet to crisp the fat before being stuffed into buttermilk biscuits slathered with fig preserves. A few days later, some of the trim and bone go into a broth for black-eyed peas and collards that will become a hoppin’ John stew for New Year’s. Next comes a big batch of split pea soup. And finally, the skin and scraps get portioned and frozen as treats for Birdie, our salty family dog.
Thinking about ham for the holidays? Check out our guide, featuring recipes and tips. For my fellow Joy of Cooking fans, read about the fascinating history of the family behind the book in “Ode to Joy” by contributor Kat Kinsman. Cooking for friends and family? Go all out and source the best birds, bubbles, or even white truffles.
This December issue features only the choicer parts. From my table to yours, happy holidays.