Ham It Up

It’s funny how food can take you on an unexpected journey, and what you learn along the way.

I recently had an interesting and somewhat humbling journey chasing a ham of all things. It all started when my wife (archivist for the county’s historical society) brought home a copy of a 1988 restaurant review, written for a Pennsylvania newspaper by Phyllis Richman. She was the iconic food reviewer/writer for the Washington Post for about thirty years, and I really liked her work and probably got me started on my interest in food and writing of same. Anyway, the review was interesting for a couple of reasons.

First of all, it was about our (famous?) St. Mary’s County Stuffed Ham, and secondly, it reviewed her dinner of same in the Belvedere Motor Inn, a motel in Lexington Park opened in 1965. I used to stay there when working on various flight test programs here at Pax River in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Ms. Richman jogged a few memories when she described the dining room (arches, many paintings, blue margaritas) and the fact it had 24 REAL Tiffany Lamps.

Anyway the thrust of her article was about the Belvedere serving the St. Mary’s County Stuffed Ham, and therefore how they were “preserving” the tradition. However, I think I would have to disagree with Phyllis about the role of the Belvedere, there are plenty of people who always did and still do make the dish. Gosh, I thought, Stuffed Ham would make a great subject for the “views” column. The all knowing Bottom Feeder (my other persona) can introduce readers to this little known local traditional dish, give a recipe and it will be a great little column.

So the first step of my journey was when I began to do “research” on the subject of Stuffed Ham. I suppose like everybody else you start out with Google and see where you go. Well, guess what? Almost every food blogger out there at some point has “discovered” Maryland Stuffed Ham, make a posting about it, and go on to emote about the ham and what a wonderful thing it is that they have personally uncovered. I mean, everybody. Common as a cold. So there went any thought of uniqueness. And as for recipes, of course each one of them gives one, and for the most part they are similar with slight variations. So instead of giving you a particular one, basically here is the process:

Get a fresh ham; “corn” it (cure with either a rub or liquid) for several days; cut slits in it, and “stuff” with kale, cabbage, onions, then wrap in muslin and boil for a long time. Cool, slice, and voila you have a stuffed ham. The only variations in the recipes is what the “stuff” is.

Most of the bloggers made passing reference to the origin, but they were not consistent. So the second leg of the journey was chasing down references to the origins of Stuffed Ham. One said it was first made by a slave at a Jesuit manor house in St. Inigoes (near St. Mary’s City) celebrating the end of lent, another assigned it to slaves in general, but a few other articles speculated that it came over from England with the colonists who first populated St. Mary’s City. Boiled meats were not uncommon in England, so it is not surprising that the practice came with the colonists. I found an interesting article from the New York Times claimed that recipes for “Stuffed Chine” have been found in Elizabethan cookbooks which called for ''Bradenham gammon (ham) ... cut to the bone with slots and a mixture of herbs and lots of parsley pressed in, tied in muslin and boiled.'' Interestingly enough the article also claimed that none other than George Calvert (our First Lord Baltimore and founder of St. Mary’s City) partook of stuffed ham as a boy at their “ancient family estate” in Yorkshire. Wow! Pretty strong statement! To kind of check this further (more steps on the journey) I asked Dr. Henry Miller, historian at Historic St. Mary’s City about this, and he said “there is just no food data about George Calvert or the family in the late 16th century, so I am clueless as to where this came from.” He went on to comment that while the cabbage, kale, and onions would be common in English, red peppers so common in St. Mary’s County Stuffed Ham recipes were most likely introduced through the slaves from Africa and the Caribbean where red peppers were part of their cuisine.

I also took a little side (email) trip and asked Michael Twitty a cultural food historian about the ham’s history, and he also subscribed to the theory that while boiled meats had English origins, slaves of this country were responsible for adding different spices and whatever they had in their gardens. Another side trip took me to the SMC Historical society and the folder there labeled “Stuffed Ham” In it I found many recipes and process description of stuffed ham, plus some lovely old photographs of Mary Ora Norris that were not dated. They pretty much illustrate the process.

And from a local historian whom I will call “Pete” (to protect his identity), I got some more recent pictures of his making a ham, which are not much different from Mrs. Norris.

Dr. Miller concluded with the thought that “the only two places it is found is Southern Maryland, especially St. Mary's County, and places in Kentucky settled by people from Southern Maryland. This strongly argues against it being a traditional English practice and implies independent invention. Boiling meats and even some stuffing was certainly known, as our Thanksgiving turkey still shows, but the unique combination of ingredients and the method of preparation make Maryland Stuffed Ham stand out as a distinctive and wonderful contribution of early Maryland peoples to the nation's foodways.”

Whatever the origins, Stuffed Ham has remained a county tradition to this day. There are still more steps in the journey such as exploring why people in the northern part of our county use more kale and southern folk tend to use more cabbage. Enjoy the trip. And special thanks to Dr. Henry Miller for sharing some of his vast knowledge of English History and New World foodways!