An informal poll of several friends revealed what people plan on serving this Christmas. In this era of foodie-ism, everything from leg of lamb to fresh-caught pheasant to butternut squash risotto with escarole, hazelnuts and sage is on the menu. There will also be a heckuva lot of turkey (a shame for those birds who thought they’d escaped their fate by making it past Thanksgiving), as well as duck, fish and even lasagna. But it seems that one item is decidedly absent from many a holiday table nowadays: the humble Christmas ham.
Eating ham for Christmas seems old school—because it is. Not only is it the centerpiece of the prototypical Dickensian Christmas, it’s said to have its roots in ancient pagan ritual. A wild boar was supposedly the sacrifice of choice to the Norse god Freyr, who is associated with harvest and phallic fertility. When pagans were converted to Christianity, the porcine meal became linked to St. Stephen, whose feast day is December 26th.
In the 2,000 years since, the Christmas ham became a sweet-salty staple of the holiday meal, festooned as was popular in the 1950s with whole cloves, canned pineapple slices and bright red maraschino cherries, and glazed in brown sugar. Growing up, Christmas Eve may have been spent feasting on meat pie with my French-Canadian side of the family, but Christmas Day was done with the Anglo side. My grandmother would prepare two animals: a turkey and a ham. And the ham was made per the above instructions.
“Oh, ham can be boring,” she said to me recently, sounding exasperated, as if already gearing up for battle with the pig she will make this Sunday. Her name is Florence Jackson, in case you were wondering. Her ham is one of those foods that recall home and childhood for me. But, honestly, it’s never been a dish I much understood. Ham is already cured, right? (It doesn’t have to be.) So, why cook it? I never got an answer to that. I did, however, get my grandmother’s recipe.
Her secret? A bottle of beer. Take a bone-in shank, put it in a pot and dump an entire beer over top (“It doesn’t matter what kind.”). Add enough water to cover at least half it, then bring it to a boil. Let that simmer, turning it once, for maybe an hour. (Specific recipes are hard to pry out of Grandma. She’s a proponent of eyeballing and “feeling it out.” She did reveal that the beer helps neutralize the salt.) Remove the ham from the beery water, dress it – and here are where the brown-sugar glaze, festive canned fruits, and a thorough studding of cloves come in – then pop it in the oven, covered, at 350F for another hour or so. Uncover it for the last 15 minutes for browning. (“Don’t burn it,” she advises.)
OK, so it’s not the most refined of recipes – what comfort food is? Foodies might turn their noses up at the canned fruit and would probably replace the light beer my grandmother uses with some craft microbrew. But that’s no reason to forgo the Christmas ham altogether. With the excellent hams coming out of Virginia theses days and small farms around the country curing their own heritage-breed pork, we might very well be in a new Golden Age of American ham. A ham Renaissance, if you will. We should embrace it. No offense to the pheasant.
Admittedly, my own adaptation of my grandmother’s recipe does not make use of pineapple slices or maraschino cherries. Instead, some grated ginger and orange marmalade add a fruity tang to the meat, minus the kitsch. I like to kick up the brown-sugar glaze with a little hot mustard. As for the beer, a bottle of Bud does just fine.