Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Stuffed Ham that Wasn't

Today I would have been curing our ham for the Southern Maryland Stuffed Ham we had envisioned as the centerpiece of a family Easter buffet. Alas, the fresh ham that was promised at our local Whole Foods turned out to be a fairy tale, a chimera, the figment of a meat clerk's imagination.

I'll call him G.

My wife had a long conversation with G the day before yesterday. This after we decided that a stuffed ham--a delicacy of Southern Maryland, more specifically, of St. Mary's County--would be just the thing to serve the extended family Easter Sunday. A stuffed ham is unusual in that the ham itself is corned. You've probably had ham a dozen different ways and never seen a corned ham. Well, it is a bit of an oddity, cured like corned beef. You can buy corned hams at the local grocery in St. Mary's County, but that being almost two hour's drive from us here in the District of Columbia, we were going to corn our own. And that means first finding a fresh ham, a ham that has not been salted, injected, smoked, cooked or any of those other things. Just plain ham, the way it came off the pig.

Our cookbook collection is extensive. But nowhere do we own a discription of how to corn a ham. The idea is to soak the ham over a long period in a brine of salt, sugar, spices, water and a little sodium nitrate. We did some poking around on the internet and when we finally found what looked like a reliable recipe, we checked the calendar and realized we barely had the 12-15 days required to cure this ham. We needed a fresh ham fast, so we could make the brine and get the ham in the brine and find a container big enough to fit the whole thing...

That's when my wife called G, he being one of the clerks in the meat department at our local Whole Foods. Could G get us a fresh ham? Sure, no problem, G said. He'd place the order and we'd have our fresh ham the next day.

On that basis, we called The Sausage Maker (that's a company, not a person) in Buffalo, NY, the closest source we could find for sodium nitrate. Sodium nitrate is not essential to a corned ham, but it does help retain some of the pink color in the meat. We inquired if we could get overnight delivery of a $8.99 pound bag of The Sausage Maker's "Insta-Cure #2" (their monniker for the sodium nitrate). Glory, glory, the answer was Yes! And only $25 for the shipping.

Shortly after noon yesterday, a UPS man showed up at the front door with our bag of "Insta-Cure #2," now valued at $34. Suddenly the juices were flowing. I could see myself mixing the brine, the ham and all the spices going into the brine. So I made the call to Whole Foods to make sure our ham was ready for pickup. But this time on the other end of the line was confusion.

"What kind of ham did you say?" said the clerk who answered the phone. "Fresh ham," I replied. "My wife called yesterday. G said it would be in today." There was a pause. "Uh, can you hold for a minute?"

Well, one minute stretched into three minutes, then five. A second person picked up the phone. I explained again why I was calling. It was as if the conversation with G the day before had never happened. I was on hold again. Then the first clerk returned to the phone. I asked to speak with G, but--and isn't this always the case?--today just happened to be G's day off. Or he was working the night shift. Or something. So again I told the story of how my wife had talked to G, and G had told us the ham would be in today. Again I was put on hold while this other clerk went "in the back" to see if he could find a fresh ham listed on the day's deliveries.

When next I heard from the clerk, he said there was no record of any fresh ham being delivered. He would have to call "the warehouse" to see if there was any way we could get a fresh ham. Could he possibly call me back after he talked to "the warehouse?" I inquired.

Sure enough, a few minutes later the clerk called me at home to deliver the good news/bad news scenario. Yes, he said, they could get me a fresh ham. But not until Sunday, five days over the horizon and much too late to guarantee our ham would be properly cured.

I called our other favorite meat supplier on Capitol Hill. "We could have it for you Thursday," said the voice at Union Meats. Alas, still too late.

Of course, in the final analysis, it's all our fault. We should have been better prepared with a recipe, clearer on the long curing time involved. We should have marked our calendar. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Oh, you're probably wondering what the "stuffed" part of this ham is. Well, that would be greens, such as kale, collards, spinach, and spices jammed into big slits in a 20-pound piece of boned ham. Then you wrap it in a pillowcase and boil for several hours (according to one recipe, at least).

And no, that is not me in the picture above, but rather a woman considered the culinary queen of St. Mary's County. Here she is, slicing stuffed ham.

Sadly, not our stuffed ham. Maybe next year.

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