Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Stuffed Ham - The Great Debate

It’s edible.  It’s mysterious. And it’s controversial.  Stuffed ham, that iconic food, is one of the best representations of St. Mary’s County.  For centuries people have argued over how to properly stuff the ham, what greens are used, and its origins.  There are no less than three stories about how stuffed ham came to be.  One story that I grew up hearing was that the enslaved at a plantation owned by Jesuits in St. Inigoes, in the southern part of the county, were the first to create it.  Enslaved people in the county received rations of food.  The meat in these rations usually consisted of things such as fatty pork or rancid meat. Sometimes during the holiday season, the enslaved would receive the jowl meat from pigs butchered. The meat was then mixed with greens.  Some say that the earliest versions of stuffed ham included dandelions, wild onions, and field cress, or whatever greens the enslaved could harvest from the wild or gardens.  This version of the origin story suggests that the Jesuits and others were intrigued by this boiled concoction of ham and greens and had the meal recreated using a better cut of meat.  The ham used today is called a corned ham.  Similar to corned beef, the less common ham version, was something that the English colonists would have brought over to Maryland. Corned ham is unique and is quite different from the Smithfield style ham one would get if they crossed over into Virginia.  This is no honey glazed, spiral cut piece of meat.  Corned ham is a fresh ham that has been taken a saltwater bath.  Instead of taking months to be ready, it only a matter of days for it to be prepared.  
Stuffed ham’s controversy centers around a few key points. One issue is what kind of opening do you create in the ham for the stuffing? Do you create X-shaped slits in the ham or are you one of those who makes a diagonal line in the meat?  Are you as precise as a surgeon or are you more independent and creative with your cuts?  Some families are very particular with what style of cut they use for the stuffing. The most contentious issue concerning stuffed ham is what mixture of greens are used.  Some parts of the county stuff the ham with a mixture of cabbage and kale that’s pretty even.  Other locations add more kale or use almost entirely cabbage and seasoning. Are you on Team Cabbage or Team Kale? Personally, I like just about any version of stuffed ham as long as its spicy.  There is also a debate over just how spicy the stuffing in the ham should be.  Red pepper flakes can add a bit of a kick to the meal.  Some people prefer to abstain from the red pepper while there are others tend to go overboard with it. 
Part of the appeal of making stuffed ham is that it can serve as a way to connect the past with the present.  Grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles can all come together to lead the process of preparing the ham and greens. Older (and not so old) relatives can share with the younger generations their family’s oral histories.  They can pass down their family recipe for stuffed ham and other stories. 
While there are other stories that dictate how stuffed ham came to be, no one can agree on just one version.  The legend of stuffed ham has been passed down throughout the county, through families each generation adding their own embellishment to the story.  As a result, stuffed ham while delicious and aromatic is clouded in a dense fog of mystery.   One thing many can agree on is that stuffed ham is a holiday food.  I say that stuffed ham should have its own holiday.  Stuffed ham can be found as the centerpiece of tables throughout the county (and parts of Charles County) from Thanksgiving through Easter.  Families start preparing the ham at least a couple of days in advance and the aroma of the ham and greens cooking lingers even after the meal has been eaten.  As we dive into the holiday season there will be a demand for greens and corned ham.  Those that don’t have the ability to commit to making it will gladly wait in line in small stores across the county in order to purchase it pre-made.  
Stuffed ham isn’t just food.  It is more than that; it’s a sharable link to the past.  It’s unique to the history of southern Maryland.  It’s a part of our region’s heritage.  And yes it’s amazing.