It doesn’t carry the rebirth symbolism of eggs or the biblical baggage of lamb, but ham is such a centerpiece of Easter meals that it’s surprising the New Testament doesn’t address it in an addendum.
If it is Easter, there is ham. That’s the gospel around here.
Easter used to lack the tinselly trappings of other major holidays, until shopping malls began converting Santa’s Christmas thrones into tulip-bedecked seats for the Easter Bunny, where kids ask him to fill their baskets.
If I visited him today, I’d ask him for a country ham.
Not one of those spiral-sliced hams. A salty, smoky hunk of hog as only Southerners can make them.
Spiral-sliced hams – plumply moist and coated with a sparkling brown sugar crust – are easy to love. A spiral-sliced ham is sweet, friendly and pleasant, like the smiling young ingenue in a Technicolor movie musical.
With a spiral-sliced ham, all you have to do is pick it up and bring it home, and the traffic around ham stores at Easter shows just how many people love them.
A survey commissioned by Michigan-based HoneyBaked Ham showed that 53 percent of those surveyed said they serve ham at Easter.
About country ham – I won’t deny that preparing a whole one is a challenge. It requires more skill and effort than idling your car in a pick-up line. Your first look may make you wonder how this crusty, earthy-smelling mass of meat could even be edible.
But it is, and it’s worth it.
A country ham is the hard-bitten waitress with a heart of gold in a film noir mystery, full of hidden depths and twists of personality. Also, country ham is likely responsible for the ham-Easter connection in the first place.
Preserving pork hindquarters via salting and aging goes back centuries. In pre-refrigeration days, particularly in hot Southern summers, properly cured ham would be safe to eat for many months, according to “The Country Ham Book,” by Jeanne Voltz and Elaine J. Harvell (UNC Press, 1999).
Besides acting as a preservative, salting intensifies the flavor as it removes moisture from the meat. If the ham is smoked, too, it adds another level of complexity.
In the days before refrigeration, farmers killed hogs and prepared the hams in the first cold days of fall or winter. Hams would cure about six months. That would make hams hung for curing in October or November ready for eating around Easter.
The ham would be greatly anticipated. During winter, game was about the only meat our great-great-grands could get, and those fatty, flavorful hams would taste mighty good after those lean, tough critters. Such a large hunk of meat would be reserved for festive occasions – and that brings me back to Easter.
There is another kind of ham. Delicacy makes me hesitate to speak its name, but I shall: the canned ham.
A canned ham may have had a brief acquaintance with real ham sometime in its existence, but what you get is pig parts mashed up and held together with gelatin in a can that you crank open with a tiny metal key. I’m leery of food that I have to unlock.
They last a long time, too, but that’s not a good thing unless you’re a camper or survivalist. Or my mother.
My mother kept canned hams on hand for never-quite-defined emergencies. And this was the ham she produced for Easter, slathered in a glaze of yellow mustard, brown sugar and cloves.
Here’s something that can unite both the spiral-sliced lovers and the country ham fans in peace at the Easter table: If faced with a canned ham, tell ’em to hold the meat and just give you the glaze.
Sweet Potato Ham Biscuits
Ham biscuits are a classic Southern treat. The sweet potato in the dough adds a slightly sweet contrast to the salty ham. This recipe is from “Fan Fare: A Playbook of Great Recipes for Tailgating or Watching the Game at Home,” by Debbie Moose (Harvard Common Press, 2007).
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1 1/2 cups cooked, peeled, mashed sweet potatoes, cooled to room temperature
10 ounces country ham slices
HEAT the oven to 450 degrees. Spray a rimmed baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray.
IN a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, sugar, salt and cinnamon. Using a pastry blender, cut in the butter cubes until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal.
IN a medium-size bowl, combine the sweet potatoes and buttermilk. Stir the potato-buttermilk mixture into the flour mixture, stirring just until the dough begins to come together. Add a little more buttermilk if the dough is dry and not holding together. The dough should be very moist.
LIGHTLY flour your hands and a clean work surface. Turn the dough out onto the floured surface and knead lightly to combine; do not use too much flour (not more than about 1/2 cup additional flour). Press or roll out the dough to a 1/2-inch thickness. Cut with a 2- or 2 1/2-inch biscuit or round cookie cutter. Place the biscuits on the baking sheet, very close together but not touching, about 1/2 inch apart. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes or until lightly brown; watch carefully near the end to avoid burning. Remove the biscuits to a rack and let cool.
FRY the ham slices according to the package directions and drain well on paper towels. Do not overcook them.
TO serve, slice the biscuits in half, cut the ham slices to fit the biscuits and insert the ham into the middle of each biscuit.
Yield: About 15 biscuits.