There's a moment I cherish above all others during the holiday season, and it arrives without fail about four hours after Christmas dinner. That's when someone in my family ventures over to the refrigerator, pulls out the leftover, tinfoil-covered platter of ham, puts it on the kitchen island, and fixes a snack. Before long, others have abandoned their books or board games or television shows, and a small crowd hovers around that ham, laughing and talking and noshing. Someone fetches the remaining dinner rolls. Someone else breaks out the pickles and mustard. It's Christmas dinner, part two.
No other food can bring my family together like that. And no food is quite as compliant: my family's Christmas ham, which we simply drop into a roasting pan and coat with a brown sugar and mustard glaze, keeps giving right on through to New Year's, in sandwiches, pastas, fried rice, mac-and-cheese, beans, greens, soup, and whatever else we feel inspired to make with it.
Simple a pleasure though ham is, it's also complicated in its way. The ones that I grew up eating in New York on holidays—sweet and juicy and pink, with a crackly, caramelized crust—are worlds apart from the country-style hams that my husband, Lindsay, was raised with in North Carolina. His family's hams are complex, salty, and wonderful in a completely different way. Ten years ago, when I was first handed one of the hams Lindsay's uncle Kent cures in salt in the fall and leaves hanging in his barn until the following year, I have to admit, I was scared by the sight of it. It was hard to the touch, and part of it was specked with mold. I followed Kent's instructions to scrub it clean; then I removed the two bottom crisper drawers of my refrigerator and stored the thing there until I mustered the courage to cook it. Cleaned up, it looked more like the serrano hams I've seen perched on tapas bars across Spain or the prosciutti that hang in salumerie all over Italy, both of which are shaved thin and eaten uncooked. Suddenly I wondered, Why couldn't I eat Uncle Kent's ham the same way?
Cookbooks were of little help. James Beard, who was probably the most devoted ham champion this country has ever seen, acknowledges in his book American Cookery (Little, Brown, 1972) that the coveted salt-cured hams of Europe—Belgium's Ardennes ham, France's Bayonne ham, Germany's Westphalian ham, Parma's prosciutto—are traditionally served uncooked. But when it comes to American dry-aged country ham, like the ones Lindsay's relatives have made for centuries in the South, Beard told us to cook it. That's the way it's always been done. Uncle Kent agreed. "I guess you could eat it raw," he told me over the phone. "But I never do." Instead, he told me to saw off the hock and save it for seasoning soups and beans, slice off a few pieces for pan-fried ham steaks, and then soak the ham for a few days before simmering, glazing, and baking it. And so I did. (I had to borrow a handsaw from my apartment building's superintendent, Charlie.) The results were delicious, but I couldn't resist shaving off a few pieces first to eat raw; they had a gentle salinity, and they practically melted on the tongue. Dry-curing the hind legs of pigs is one of the oldest ways of preserving pork, and—with all due respect to Uncle Kent and James Beard—it does indeed render the meat ready to eat. The ancient Romans did it. The Gauls did it. And some historians believe that those Europeans learned how to do it by trading with the Chinese, who have been curing hams for millennia. Salt-cured hams are a traditional holiday food in scores of countries, from France and Germany to England and the United States, and a love of ham in those countries has traveled to the Caribbean, the Philippines, South America, and beyond. The meat and bone from hams are put to use in myriad ways—in Chinese ham broth soups and in German baked ham steaks, to name but two. Ham pairs beautifully with sweet, spicy, or creamy foods; those foods counteract the meat's saltiness, which can range from mild to emphatic (see Ham Companions).