Ham has got to be the simplest meat to cook. You are only heating it up. Pour a bottle of root beer (for a sugary-spice) or a cola in the and then periodically baste and you’ve got a syrupy glaze perfect with salty pink meat. Add fruit or cloves or ginger and you transform this meat so that it works with anything or any celebration.
The Holiday ham or Yule ham is a Germanic tradition. Originating as tribute to Freyr, the Nordic god associated with boars and fertility. With the Angles and Saxons this tradition spread to England and throughout Scandinavia. The images of roast boar with an apple in its mouth came from ancient Germany although it’s now more closely associated with Tudor England. With the advent of Christianity the Yule ham morphed into the feast of St. Stephen on December 26th. But why the prevalence of the pig for the mid-winter dinner celebration? Hogs are economical: they are prolific breeders in the wild, easy to keep livestock especially when you feed them scraps, and most small farms could support a few. Fowl are smaller and the turkey didn’t come into vogue until the late 1500s. Smoking or curing large cuts of pork (called a gammon in Britain, gods knows why) was the most reasonable way of preserving so much meat before refrigeration. Hogs were slaughtered in the winter when the cuts could be stored in cold temperatures and packed in salt, then slowly smoked before the weather warmed up to spoil the meat. Once cured, the hams could last a year or longer. Hence the holiday meal to celebrate the previous year’s prosperity and hope for continued success.
Early English settlers in the American South carried on this tradition and at one point every Southern farm had their own special recipe for a ‘country ham’ which became a local and regional flavor tradition. A Virginia ham is vastly different from the ones made in the Carolina or Tennessee. After the Great Depression forced many people into the city, when they could return home for the holidays a country ham was the centerpiece of the meal offering familiarity and something lacking in their new city lives. Ignore the household name brands, today there still small packing plants producing these wonderful craft meats.
Southern country hams, depending whether using a wet or dry smoke, tend use molasses, or brown sugar hickory smoke and whole a lot of salt, whereas the German hams are seasoned with caraway seeds, coriander or juniper berries. Like the South, there are regional distinctions and a Black Forest Ham is dark red and will have a solid smoked flavor from the pine used, while Westphalian Ham is smoked over mild beech wood and seasoned with Juniper Berries. A German ‘Boiled ham’ is not actually boiled in a pot; rather it is cured in a brine or in injected with a solution and left in hot smoke to finish. When done it is stuffed in ‘ham formers’ or rolled then wrapped in plastic which gives its unique shape.
Obviously every culture has variations in their Christmas dinner menus. I have spoken about the goose, turkey and beef dinners on this site. Yet even the big pork cuisine regions like Italy, Spain and Portugal forgo their wonderful hams at Christmas in favor of something from the sea or lamb. It is rumored that by tradition German people will eat carp on the December 24. I haven’t seen it.
No wonder the Holiday Ham caught on in America!