The Best Easter Ham (Very Little) Money Can Buy
A Q&A with Monte Mathews, the man behind our perennially popular, five-ingredient, “cheap ham” recipe
In the 1990s, when I was a senior associate editor at Saveur, the magazine published recipes for Filet de Boeuf Grille avec Mignonnette de Poivre, Coscia ‘i Maiaili Arrustutu, and Gnap Song Saw Choy, but the meat dish that got the most attention called for just five ingredients and came with the following advice: “buy the cheapest ham you can find, glaze the hell out of it, and cook it for a long time.” Included in the April 1997 issue, “Monte’s Ham” went on to appear on major morning shows and in local newspapers nationwide, eventually earning a spot in The Essential New York Times Cookbook, a dignified 2010 collection of “Classic Recipes for a New Century.” So who’s the man behind the ham? Back then, Monte Mathews worked in advertising as a creative director in Manhattan. Today, 23 years later (!), he edits the food and travel blog “Chewing the Fat” from his homes in New York—Manhattan and Bridgehampton—and from wherever he may be on the road. With Easter right around the counter, we figured it was high time to catch up with Saveur’s prince of pork.
According to the 1997 Saveur article, you discovered the secret to gussying up a cheap ham at a party shortly after moving to New York City in the early ‘70s. Why were you so excited about a ham?
You can’t imagine what it was like. This ham was a huge hit. People devoured it. People who hated ham loved this ham. Back then, I was just a kid. I didn’t have a lot of money. The hams in the fridge case were really cheap, about 99 cents a pound, but no one knew.
Who hosted the party that led to this a-ha moment?
Carlotta Jacobson, as I said in the original article. We were nursery-school parents together. We met through our little boys. In those days, we were young and fun on the Upper East Side. Back then, she was the assistant to the associate beauty editor at a magazine. She went on to become very successful in the beauty business and is now the president of the trade organization Cosmetic Executive Women.
What is it about this particular recipe?
The crunch of the crust. The tang. The sweetness. It’s just a big sugar ball. It really is a wonderful glaze, and the recipe is a piece of cake. So easy.
Honey-baked ham versus “Monte’s Ham”: Who wins?
The honey-baked ham was my mother’s standard. That’s what I grew up with. My sister, when visiting us in Atlanta, where we moved when I was 16, would often lug one all the way back to Canada, where she stayed. Do those honey-baked ham stores still exist? It was really a southern thing. I’m not sure how well they were received in the northeast.
Did your ham recipe change your life in any way?
Well, I got into the ham business—but not the cheap ham business. I did a lot of research and found a place in upstate New York that raises hogs ethically in pastures, outside. So I partnered with them and sold ham and the glaze online and through Williams Sonoma and Dean & Deluca. That started in 2009. It was well-received, but I could not get people to buy between Easter and Thanksgiving! I even offered coolers for ham sandwiches on the beach. For me, there is no ham season, but for most other people, ham is holiday food. So holidays were crazy, especially Christmas. I had also started a blog at the same time, Chewing the Fat, initially to promote the ham, but it took on a life of its own. Eventually, in 2014, I decided to let the ham business go and instead focus on writing and the blog, which is still going strong. I post twice a week, and for each post, I provide one recipe—Financiers and a Brown Sugar Tart, most recently—and the story behind the recipe. I love it. 945 posts and counting!
Would you say that the ham made you famous?
I don’t know about that. I did go on the TV show Four Houses. The idea is you compete with three other homeowners for the “best home,” and the winner gets $10,000. The only reason I did it was for the ham placement. I cooked a big ham and set it up all nice on the island. It was ham city! But they edited around that. Watching on TV, you wouldn’t know there was any ham there at all. But I won. Got a check for $10,000. And a couple times, when delivering hams, people would say, “I can’t believe we’re meeting you in person!”
Most Saveur fans have all already made your ham, but do you have tips for anyone out there—is there anyone out there?—who has yet to give the recipe a whirl?
Buy a ham with a fat cap. And don’t cut it off. It is essential to the glaze. Spiral-cut ham doesn’t work at all. That spiral cut makes it convenient to serve, but the glaze won’t cling to the meat.
Do you still make “Monte’s Ham”?
I trot it out once or twice a year. It’s not a $6.99 ham anymore, though. Those days are long gone. Ham is much more expensive. To get an ethically raised one, you’re looking at around $100 for a 15-pounder.
But can you do a cheap-ham recipe on an expensive ham?
It is always good, but, honestly, the expensive ones are not as fatty, so they may not cook up as well. They are not the old porkers we were used to.
Monte’s Ham Recipe
- 15 lb. smoked ham on the bone
- 1 1⁄2 cups orange marmalade
- 1 cup dijon mustard
- 1 1⁄2 cups firmly packed brown sugar
- 1 Tbsp. whole cloves
- Preheat oven to 300°. Trim tough outer skin and excess fat from ham. Place ham, meat side down, in a large roasting pan and score, making crosshatch incisions with a sharp knife. Roast for 2 hours.
- Remove ham from oven and increase heat to 350°. For glaze, combine orange marmalade, mustard, and brown sugar in a medium bowl. Stud ham with whole cloves (stick one clove at the intersection of each crosshatch), then brush with glaze and return to oven.
- Cook ham another 1 1⁄2 hours, brushing with glaze at least 3 times. Transfer to a cutting board or platter and allow to rest for about 30 minutes. Carve and serve warm or at room temperature.