Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Story of Stuffed Ham

I am seven years old, standing in my Grandma’s kitchen, attempting to calm my senses, which are being attacked by the conflicting smells of mothballs and our Southern Maryland style holiday supper spread. Standing in the cattle line to get my fill of our Christmas feast, I spot something terrifying: stuffed ham. I stare curiously at the large pink ham, marbled with dark green swirls and dotted with red flecks of chili pepper. Echoes of my mother’s voice dance inside my head; “Do not touch the stuffed ham. Whatever you do, steer clear of the stuffed ham. Not even a pinch; don’t touch it.”


My Mother baked her first stuffed ham in the winter of 1990 and made the tragic mistake of placing it straight from the oven to the refrigerator. Little did she know, she had broken a cardinal sin of meat preparation: never put anything in the refrigerator that hasn’t come to room temperature. Traditionally, stuffed ham is served cold and in an eager frenzy to enjoy her first homemade ham, she attempted to rush the cooling process. My parents willingly helped themselves to a midnight snack that winter evening and subsequently spent the next few days recovering from a wicked bout of food poisoning. Poor old Dusty, the family dog, even fell seriously ill from the pinch of ham that my parents fed him on that winter evening. From that day forward, they vowed to never eat it again and as a result, they bestowed a fear of stuffed ham upon my sister and me.


Nestled between the Potomac and Patuxent rivers, St. Mary’s County is known for its plethora of fresh seafood. Springtime tables in Southern Maryland are blessed with bountiful helpings of fried rockfish and perch fillets. Summers are spent sitting around a picnic table, drinking 10oz Bud Lights and crackin’ freshly steamed blue crabs covered in Old Bay. When fall fades to winter, you will find local folk standing around a table of hot scalded oysters, plucking open tightly closed shells to find a hot and juicy surprise begging to be slurped up. With that said, there is one meaty delicacy that no true Southern Maryland family goes without during holiday celebrations year round: stuffed ham.

The infamous Southern Maryland stuffed ham traces back to the docking of the Ark and the Dove in St. Mary’s City. There is some debate as to who began the stuffing of the ham tradition; some say that the recipe originated from the slaves who worked tirelessly for the plantation owners in the area. After killing hogs, a process still widely practice today that involves stunning, scalding and butchering the animal, the plantation owners would take all the best cuts of meat for themselves and leave the not-so-appetizing pieces for the slaves. It is said that slaves took leftover pieces of the hog and used them by creating a stuffing made of local greens. Kale, cabbage and watercress were the most common greens used in the infamous stuffing. This process both stretched and flavored the remnants the slaves were given. Other bluebloods argue that the recipe originated from their homeland in England and was actually brought over to Southern Maryland by their descendants on the Ark and the Dove. Although, it should be noted, that there is little evidence to support this theory; no one can find a similar recipe which features the same processes and ingredients that are used in Southern Maryland.

Regardless of the origins, this dish has become a traditional holiday food for Southern Maryland inhabitants and continues to be passed down from generation to generation. With any and arguably all tradition, controversy follows. Serious debate divides the tight-knit community of St. Mary’s County when it comes to stuffed ham; there is something comparable to a “Mason Dixon Line” of stuffed ham. This geographical debate is centered on the type of greens used to prepare the stuffing of the ham; the folk of north county prefer kale with little or no cabbage and the folk of south county prefer cabbage with just a trace of kale. This divide is not to be taken lightly; people will argue until they are blue in the face for their version of stuffed ham. It should be noted that more kale than cabbage yields a better looking and arguably better tasting ham. Can you tell my origins?


Standing in the small, cramped kitchen of Woodburns, my fifteen year old eyes are stunned by what I see. I watch two little old ladies stand on milk crates and pound handfuls of dark green stuffing into raw hams. These women can’t weigh one hundred pounds soaking wet but they are packing a powerful punch to these hams. They slam a ham down, fill it up with stuffing, tie it up, wrap it in cheese cloth and throw it in a roasting pan. The sight of their system paralyzes me; they seriously have ham stuffing down to a science.

As they begin to finish their assembly line, the first ham is finally ready and the two old ladies take it out of the steamer and tear themselves a generous hunk to taste. I stare at the juicy, fragrant ham dripping with a deliciously green stuffing; it looks absolutely delectable but I hear that echo of my mother again, “Not even a pinch. Don’t touch it!” They offer me a piece and I can’t bring myself to refuse their generosity. A burst of tangy, spicy flavor assaults my taste buds; I have never had such a flavorful piece of meat in my life. A perfect balance between sweet and sour; the stuffing almost reminds me of a homemade pickle in summertime. I cannot believe I have been missing out on this all of my life.


Preparing stuffed ham is extremely labor intensive; from de-boning to stuffing, this delicacy takes a lot of elbow grease. Stuffed ham is traditionally wrapped in cheese cloth and boiled in a large pot but some people wrap it in aluminum foil and steam it in the oven. Regardless of the method of cooking, making a stuffed ham can leave a home reeking of “ham juice” for days. It is a strong, almost vinegary smell that seemingly penetrates any and everything it can. Many locals have expressed that stuffing ham has become a lost art; they suggest that the increase in production from the local grocery stores has eliminated the need for people to make their own hams. Back in the mid 1900s, it was a family affair to kill the hogs and then stuff hams. People gathered around their kitchens and worked together as a family to treat the meat and prepare their feasts. When local family grocery stores began mass marketing the hams in the late 1900s, people could skip all the labor-intensive parts and just buy their ham pre-cooked, stuffed and sliced, and ready to decorate the tables of their festive feasts. Taking this route, natives can now have their local delicacy without the blood, sweat, mess and smell of stuffing the hams themselves.


From that moment forward, my irrational fear of dying a slow death from stuffed ham had finally ceased. I woke up the next morning with no sign of illness; I had survived. Rushing to the breakfast table, I told my parents that I had finally mustered up the courage to try the infamous stuffed ham and they were delighted to see that I was able to experience the local delicacy without falling ill. Finally, after more than a decade, my parents decided to give stuffed ham a second try. Although, this time my mother steered clear of the kitchen and we decided it was the safest bet to buy our first family stuffed ham. So, last Christmas, we feasted without fear and survived. Our communal experience of sharing this local delicacy left me feeling heavy, not only from a full belly of spicy ham, but more so with a desire to revive this lost art. I feel as if it is my responsibility as a native to learn this tradition and carry it forward to my kin (that is, if I ever find a mate…another story…).

Where do we begin? 

Nanny’s Stuffed Ham recipe…

 Stay tuned for the play-by-play of my first ham-stuffing adventure.

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