Today: A beautiful ode to country ham, plus an easy way to prepare it: in the slow cooker.
I came across an old black-and-white photograph the other day and, as old photographs do, it stirred memories. In it, a Midwestern farmer, his wife, and their neighbors stood proudly out by the butchering tree, a white gothic farmhouse in the background. Next to them was a flameless pit of hot, glowing coals, the resting place for a steaming cauldron large enough to blanch an entire hog. The pig, hoisted up with a rope around its hind legs, hung lifeless while everyone stood at the ready to turn it into fresh sausages.
If you have ever slaughtered a pig for your table, you know that a good portion of the swine is for preserving. A pig is as much about today as it is tomorrow -- it is food for the future. To keep things fresh, you butcher on a cold fall morning, when the grass is brittle with a thick frost and the blades crunch under the weight of your footsteps. You are taking part in a transformational ceremony where fresh belly becomes bacon and hind legs become ham -- the latter is the real prize, to be awarded sometime near spring.
As a child, I remember sitting at a long table in the grass behind my grandparents' farmhouse, the corners of the crisp tablecloth flopping like an American flag in the gentle spring breeze. In the middle of the table sat a large whole ham, as if it were the minister and the side dishes its parishioners. I'm certain that at this point in my grandmother's life, she wasn’t curing hams anymore. We were still eating one of her pigs, but by this time, most farmers took their animals to a processor to do the dirty work.
The kind of ham my grandmother would get back from the processor was decidedly Midwestern: It is brined and not salted, plump, lightly smoked -- what I know as ham. It is tender when cold and even more so when gently warmed. Unlike a Southern ham, this one can be eaten in thick slabs without ever getting overly salty, and its fatty edges become crisp from a sugary glaze. A whole ham makes a memorable after-church supper for a crowd. Later, toward evening, when you get hungry again, you can eat it on a biscuit, or, even better, on a tender loaf of homemade white bread.
My food roots are mid-Ohio-German, but my tastes and food desires rise from the Deep South. I like both grits and goetta -- and no matter my roots, like all good country people, I have a fondness for a good country ham. I like to make mine in a slow-cooker, then finish it in the oven with a sweet mustardy glaze. It would make a beautiful addition to your Easter table.
One 6-pound fully cooked country ham (read the label closely)
6 cups unsalted vegetable broth or water
2 teaspoons fennel seed, crushed
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon dried thyme, crushed
3/4 cups honey
1 tablespoon Dusseldorf or Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon unsalted butter
Photos by Tom Hirschfeld