Tuesday, September 28, 2010


Familiar as ham is, it comes as a surprise to realize how ambiguous the word ham really is. I’ll attempt a definition suitable for its uses in a culinary context: a cured pork product prepared from a hind limb of a pig.
But wait a minute: is ham always cured? Is it always from the hind leg? Is it always from a pig?

As it turns out, although a good argument can be made that my first definition above is the one which shows the greatest respect for both history and etymology, in actual practice, the word often means something else. To begin with, ham is not always cured. Fresh pig leg meat is marketed, confusingly, as ham. Since it is not cured meat but rather fresh meat, it’s tempting to call it raw or uncooked ham. But there are cured hams which are uncooked/ raw. American country hams, such as the one shown above, are cured but uncooked and raw, as is Italian prosciutto crudo . The product sold as “ham” in the deli department of the grocery store might be ham, but there is also a good chance that it’s scraps of ham (probably scraped from the knives and saws used to cut up whole hams) mixed with a binding agent (gelatin) and flavoring. To my mind that makes it a ham product, not ham.

Is cured pork leg prepared from the front legs properly called ham? I say no; the front legs have a different pattern of musculature and even when given a ham cure do not have the same taste. They can be just as good in their own way, and certainly are more economical for a small family than a ham, but they are not ham.

Believe it or not there is something called halal ham: imagine my surprise as I read down the list of potential pizza toppings posted in the neighborhood pizza place. Boldly stated at the top of the list is the statement “All of our meats are halal”. And one of them is called ham. I wonder if this product also does duty as “kosher ham”? Comments will be appreciated.

Above I mentioned Italian prosciutto crudo. The Italian word for leg is gamba. In the slang of succeeding generations of Italian American men, this came to be shortened to “gams” in reference to the shapely ones sported by pin-up celebrities of the World War II period. The dictionaries I consulted don’t say as much, but it’s tempting to wonder if the English word “ham” might not have had at least one Italian parent. I wonder the same about the word gammon.

It can be difficult to sit through a viola da gamba concert if I have not had at least a light meal beforehand. The name of the instrument is an allusion to the way it is positioned for playing: against the leg in contrast to the position of the viola da braccio which is held against the arm/shoulder. The shapely viola da gamba has something of the shape of a ham, and its handsome varnish suggests a culinary glazing. Will I last until the end of the concert? Which of the appetites will prevail? And will dinner be ham da gamba or ham da braccio?

The ham in the image above is the real thing: a North Carolina cured country ham. My dad grew up in the country ham tradition, but the hams we had at home when I was a kid were mild-, wet-cure hams. The one exception is still celebrated in bad memory: we tried to cook a country ham “from the book”, and it did not go well. My first encounters with genuine country ham were not felicitous, and it was not until well into adulthood that I acquired, slowly, a taste for this delicacy. And I remember the events of my adult epiphany well: I was attending a lily show being held at the University of Virginia. Someone from the show committee had prepared a huge plate of thin biscuits with very thinly sliced country ham. I didn’t find them until after my show responsibilities had been completed. They seem not to have been touched. Curious, I tried one. The mild saltiness of the ham was a perfect compliment to the gentle biscuit: for the first time in my life I understood why this particular combination is so highly esteemed. All the while the handsome matron in charge of the food table had been watching me: I had greeted her, but otherwise there had been no conversation. She could clearly read the enjoyment on my face as I savored that first ham biscuit. And I chuckled to myself as her eyebrows arched momentarily, her eyes sparkled a bit, and the tiniest hint of a grin wiggled merrily at the corners of her mouth as I stuffed the pockets of my suit (yes, my suit) with enough more to keep me happy during my subsequent walking tour of Thomas Jefferson’s campus.

That I did not like country ham and wine when younger is not surprising: ham and wine (especially red wine) share a taste characteristic which I could not abide as a youngster. Both have a distinct aftertaste of rot: ham that of rotting flesh and wine that of rotting vegetation. A taste for a whiff of rot in meat is deeply embedded in our culinary traditions: think of the whole woodcock hung until gravity separates the body from the legs, or the dry-hung beef which has turned purple and developed a hard crust. White truffle to me smells of dead rat. No doubt it helps to grow up in the tradition: I didn’t. When I was growing up, nothing the least bit tainted went into my mouth for long.

Now, thirty years later, I still remember a dinner I attended at which was served, with some ceremony, the last batch of wine the family’s grandfather had prepared. Nonno had died a few years before this meal, and the wine, a red wine, reeked of the compost heap. The savor was not simply vegetal, is was recently-rotted vegetal. And yet the family members, who had evidently been drinking it for years, found it palatable and good. Nonno’s delightful wife, daughter and two granddaughters were there with us, and Nonna’s pride in the wine was so obvious that I did everything I could to smile and feign enjoyment. Did I mention that I did not grow up in a wine drinking family?

In case anyone reading this has not heard the oldest ham joke in the book, here it is: “What’s the definition of eternity? Two people and a ham” With that in mind, I cut the ham shown in the image above into four sections: the bony tip and three meaty pieces. I kept one meaty piece for household use and distributed the rest to my sister and niece.

Every country ham is different, and so it is with a bit of trepidation that I cut into one for the first time. This one turned out to be very good indeed: I’ve been whittling away at our piece daily. The texture of cured ham is very peculiar: it suggests the texture of firm cheese rather than that of meat. That’s an advantage in the sense that it makes it possible to easily cut paper-thin slices. The piece I kept will not be baked: I’ll continue to cut nearly transparent slices and pan fry them until it’s all used.

It was on the table again tonight: I minced a few ounces of the ham, crisped it in a pan, then added a head of roughly chopped escarole; this was cooked until the escarole wilted. Some cooked rice rounded out the meal. Yummy.

No comments: