The First Bite – Origins
Ham is the first meat known to be cured. China takes credit this, claiming they started the practice back in 4900 B.C. The ancient Gauls, however, would argue that they were the first porcine preservers. There are historians who claim that salted and smoked ham is a French invention, but they are surely pulling our leg. Get it? Because ham is part of the leg…. *ahem, moving on!
Second Bite – Trending
Ham enthusiasm spread through ancient Europe due to Roman love of the stuff. It is believed the Romans learned the curing method from trading with the Chinese. So Americans weren’t the first people with an infatuation for Chinese food! I wonder if they had takeout back then?
Third Bite – Building Blocks
Without ham, early civilization wouldn’t have had a leg to stand on. (That’s my last leg pun, I promise!) It’s true though. Anthropologists believe that the advent of curing meat enabled people to build communities, establish cultures and to flourish.
Bite 4 Bite – The Vikings Did It!
Ham was part of traditions held by ancient Germanic people including Celts, Scandinavians, Vikings and Saxons. During the Winter Solstice celebration known as “Yuletide”, a mid-winter feasting lasting 12 days, a boar was sacrificed to Freyr, god of agriculture, land, fertility, marriage, and love, and there would be ham at the feast. When these early people converted to Christianity, they gave up their worship of the Norse gods, but they kept the ham because, hey, it’s good and what else are we going to have for Christmas dinner?! Saint Stephen is often given credit for assimilating many “Yule” traditions that got handed down to become part of the modern Christmas season. I’m glad ham was one of those! By the way, did you know that Santa Claus may have been based on Odin? True story! But that’s another post.
Bonus history: The head of the sacrificial boar would be brought to the feast on a silver or gold platter with an apple in its mouth. Apples were symbolic of rebirth and beauty to these people and the sacrifice of the boar was both a request for and celebration of prosperity. It’s easy to see the poetry and meaning in combining those two symbols.
Five Bite – Preservation
Nitrates, used to cure ham, aren’t a new thing. People involved in the latest health craze will tell you that nitrates are bad and we need to stay away from them. However, did you know that this sodium-based chemical has been used to cure ham in one form or another for over 1000 years? When used in the curing process, nitrates not only help kill unwanted microbes, they also give the meat its delicious, pink color and wonderful aroma. Ham naturally contains a small amount of nitrates so less need to be added when aging the meat for longer periods of time. As a note, I’m not saying that nitrates are good for you, but they won’t hurt you in moderation. So you want to limit your intake of foods that contain it. But you already knew that. If you want to read more about these, here’s a good article I found over on meatscience.org (Yes, I follow a site called ‘meat science’ because it’s two of my favorite things; meat and science!)
Bite Number Six – Porcine Proliferation
Ham, in one form or another, is produced by almost every country in the world. But who eats the most ham in the whole world? Montegro. Yeah, I didn’t expect that one either. According to the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, the United States is number 8 in the world on ham consumption behind Montegro, Serbia, China, the European Union, Taiwan, South Korea and Belarus. It turns out that pork is the most consumed animal protein in the world! I’m sure the deliciousness of ham has a lot to do with it, outshined only, perhaps, by bacon; though, I suppose, that’s arguable. I’m just not sure who would argue that point. Maybe someone in Cote d’lvoire, where ever that is. They came in last place in world ham consumption. I’ll take, “People who don’t know what they’re missing” for $1000, Alex.
Seventh Bite – Variety is the Spice of Pork
Most Americans may tell you there are two types of ham; Country Ham and City Ham. Depending who you ask, there may be some varieties within those two camps that define whether or not the ham is glazed and how. But did you know there are at least 35 unique styles of ham in the world. There are many widely-ranging culinary methods that produce such a wealth of pork leg perfection. These include, but are not limited to:
- Types of seasons used in the cure
- Curing method; wet or dry
- Length of time the ham is cured and/or aged
- Seasons and/or liquids used in the cure
- Kind of wood used to smoke the ham (if the meat is smoked at all!)
- Smoke time and temperature vary as well
- The style of facility used to age and/or smoke the ham
- Specific genetic stock of the pig
- Diet of the pig
- Certain types of molds have been found to flavor ham, so there are closely guarded strains of yeast used in some ham production.
- Physical location where the ham is finished-cured because atmosphere and weather plays an important role in the process.
Mmmm, Eight – The Tenderest of Bites
Ask any ham enthusiast and they will tell you a left leg ham is superior than one taken from the right leg. Pigs, you see, are predisposed to scratching themselves with their right leg. Those muscles, being used more, will become tougher over time. The result is a more tender, mouthwatering bite when the entrée is taken from the left leg.
Nine Bites Down – Importation
American pigs are descended from Immigrants. They didn’t show up in the United States until 1525 with Hernando de Soto. After all, exploring and conquistadoring is hungry work. Ol’ Hernando couldn’t be expected to become the first European to cross the Mississippi River without his prosciutto. He brought 13 hogs with him at the time. I’d say pork futures looked pretty good for America!
Bite10@cannedham.com – You’ve Got Mail
Ham may not have been invented by America, but the U.S. was the first nation to can the stuff. You’re welcome! George A. Hormel & Company decided to make this a thing in 1926. That did so well, George and company decided to up the ante and in 1937, the world got Spam.
Dear Mr. Hormel,
On behalf of Monte Python, the world, myself and all of our email inboxes, thank you for what you’ve done for us. Not only did you give us a fantastic lunch meat that allows our cardiologists to live high on the hog, you gave us a word that describes all the cat jokes our mothers digitally send to us.
All of Us
Bite Eleven – Thinking Ahead
Thanks to the above mentioned canning ingenuity, FEMA is now able to keep a reserve of 3.6 pounds of canned ham for every American. That means if we lose half the population when the zombie apocalypse happens, my friends and I will have 7.8 pounds of the stuff. I don’t know about you, but that’s a big comfort to me!
The Twelfth Bite of Christmas – The Healthier Option
Today, Americans eat roughly 330 million pounds of turkey at Christmas time while they take in an estimated 318 million pounds of ham. While I’m making the comparison, I should note that, according to the USDA, on average, a whole, roasted turkey, skin included, contains 7.39 grams of fat. The same amount of cured, boneless, roasted ham contains 3.13 grams of fat. My Christmas Day plate always contains roughly equal amounts of both, but I admit that I’m partial to left over ham sandwiches for the following week! Since it’s slightly healthier, I don’t feel bad having an extra piece of pecan pie! It’s a tough choice, though because I love turkey too. If you’re interested, you can some of my thoughts on that wonderfully festive bird here.