The Food Almanac: Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Staff Writer
It's National Whole Ham Day!
National Cancer Institute

A whole baked ham is a joy far beyond the more familiar deli sliced ham.

Food Calendar
Today is National Whole Ham Day. I cannot imagine Thanksgiving without a turkey. But I also cannot imagine it without a ham. It's not just because I like ham. It's also because I love the way the house smells when this ham is in the oven. As it is all morning Thanksgiving. And I love the way the early arrivals fight over the black ham--the crusty stuff I cut off at the beginning of the carving, coated with the brown-sugar-and-mustard black crunchy stuff. And I like to contrast of color and flavor with the turkey, even though the two are sliced more or less the same. 

A whole baked ham is a joy far beyond the more familiar deli sliced ham. The texture and flavor change completely in the baking. I found this out the hard way, when one year I used a bigger ham than usual and didn't bake it long enough. Nor did I leave it out overnight to take the chill off. I had a temperature reading of over 150 degrees after four hours of baking (the ideal is 160). When I cut in, the difference in color and texture between the center and the outer two-thirds was alarming and disconcerting.

The most common baked hams these days are those spiral-sliced jobs you find in specialty ham stores and supermarkets. I've had my share of them, but I haven't bought one for years. I like the ones I bake myself better. Not just because I have a good recipe, but because I'm starting with a better ham than the ham shops do. Those hams are too sweet and sliced far too thickly for my taste, too. 

There's only one thing wrong with a baked ham: getting rid of it. (You've heard that Dorothy Parker definition of eternity as two people and a ham.) We have a lot of people over for Thanksgiving, and everybody who wants it gets a big chunk of ham to take home. But we do all sort of things with what we have leftover. Sandwiches and omelettes of course, but red beans and jambalaya, too.

Eight Days Till Thanksgiving
This would be the perfect day to buy the ham, if you'll have on on the table for Thanksgiving. You don't need to do anything to it beforehand, but it's such an important part of our dinner that I'm reluctant to take the chance that I can't find a Chisesi ham in the stores. Just keep it in the refrigerator until Thanksgiving morning, and you'll have that potential problem avoided. I've already told you, but as each day passes, the chances of your getting a desirable restaurant reservation for Thanksgiving dwindles. 

Gourmet Gazetteer
Ham Hill, Mississippi is in the northeast corner of the state, 108 miles east of Memphis. At 641 feet, it's one of the highest points on a ridge that runs for several miles north and south. It rises some 250 feet above valleys to the immediate east and west. Most of the ridge is covered by trees, but enough farms are in the area to raise a few hams. The two nearest restaurants, each about eight miles away in different directions, are the Hitching Post and the Country Boy. I'll bet you can find ham at both.

Edible Dictionary
fresh ham, n.--More shoppers have been deluded by this term than almost anything else in the meat department. A ham, in its most generic sense, is the hind leg of a pig. However, most people associate the word with the familiar deli-style ham we use on sandwiches. That kind of ham is always cured, and sometimes smoked. But the same meat, uncured, is still a ham. This is "fresh ham." Cook it (as you must), and it comes out with the light tan-gray color you associate with a roasted pork loin. Which is disappointing if you're expecting the rosy, salmon-like color of deli ham. It's also sometimes called a picnic.

Deft Dining Rule #888: 
The thinner the ham is sliced, the better the flavor. More surface area for your taste mechanism to work on.

The Old Kitchen Sage Sez: 
When buying a country ham, always buy the left leg. It's slightly smaller but more tender. [This is a matter of controversy.--Tom.]

Annals Of Popular Cuisine
The fifty billionth hamburger was sold by McDonald's today in 1984. I remember when the tally, advertised on the Golden Arches sign, went from 500 million to 600 million. Not long after that they changed that line to merely "Billions and Billions Sold," so often did it need to be changed. What a troubling thought.

Today's Worst Flavor
Today in 2002, the State of Louisiana set a bounty on nutria, at four dollars per animal. The gigantic rodent, introduced to the state's swamps by Edward McIlhenny of Tabasco fame, found the place very much to its liking and continues to eat vegetation voraciously, such that marshes are denuded in spots. An earlier effort to promote the eating of nutria meat--in which quite a few local chefs were involved--failed badly. With good reason: in texture, appearance, and taste, nutria is unappetizing. What would you expect from a big orange-toothed rat? The things are still running amok.

Food Namesakes
Alistair Cooke, long-time host of Masterpiece Theatre, was born in Britain today in 1908. . . A movie called Nuts, starring Barbra Streisand, premiered today in 1987. . . Drew Ginn, Australian Olympic rower in 1996, was born today in 1974. . . Dutch World War II resistance fighter Ferdinand van der Ham was born today in 1916. How appropriate! . . Pro football quarterback Greg Cook was born today in 1946. 

In a class by himself was R.W. "Johnny" Apple, who not only has a food name but was a food writer, mostly for the New YorkTimes. That interest was secondary to his main gig, which was as a political reporter and analyst for the Times. His writing about food, however, was clearly fired by real passion. He was as knowledgeable about where to eat anywhere (including New Orleans, where he visited often) as any of the Times's restaurant critics. Today is his birthday, in 1934. He died in 2006.

Words To Eat By
"Ham's substantial, ham is fat. 
Ham is firm and sound. 
Ham's what God was getting at 
When He made pigs so round."--Roy Blount, Jr.

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