Day of the Dead: Remembering the Food They Loved

daddy-and-mother[1]Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, is celebrated in Mexico after Halloween to honor the spirits of their ancestors.  Family members and friends gather to pray for and remember family and friends who have died.  Families prepare special breads, cakes and candies to honor the day, the familiar skulls and skeleton shapes you may have seen.  They also cook favorite foods of their loved ones and have a feast in honor of them.

This season made me try to remember the favorite foods and meals of the family members I have lost.  Some are easy to remember.  Aunt Eunice, one of Daddy’s sisters, loved the creamed corn that Mother would cook in the summer.  Fresh corn just picked from the garden, creamed and cooked with a little bacon grease in an iron skillet just until it stuck a bit–what’s not to love?  Sometimes Aunt Eunice loved it too much and would actually get sick from eating so much.

Daddy had a lot of different dishes that he loved.  For some reason, today I remembered how he liked buttermilk and cornbread.  He would crumble cornbread fresh from the oven into a large glass, then pour buttermilk over it and eat it with a spoon, drinking the last few bites like a corn mush.  He was also fond of fried chicken with mashed potatoes and brown gravy, as well as slices of country ham fried in the skillet and served with biscuits and red-eye gravy.

Mother loved anything she didn’t have to cook, since she spent much of her time growing vegetables, canning, freezing, making preserves and pickles, and cooking our meals.  Don’t let anyone tell you this homemade stuff was fun to do–it was hard, tedious labor.  The fruits of her labor were delicious, but it was hard work.  So she adored eating out, especially going to the Pic-a-Rib for pit (pork) barbecue after church on Sunday.  She also liked being invited to other people’s houses for dinner.  It was a big treat when Aunt Eunice would do a fish fry and have us over, or when Aunt Mattie Lou (one of Mother’s sisters) would invite us and make her fabulous biscuits.  They were kind of a thorn in Mother’s side, however, because she could never get her biscuits as light.

Uncle Preston (one of Daddy’s brothers) had a special treat he adored.  Back in the day, fresh seafood was nonexistent in our area.  Whenever anyone went to Florida or anywhere on the Gulf Coast, he would ask them to bring back a bucket of oysters in salt water.  With luck, most of the oysters would survive the trip.  Aunt Mary Emma would dip them in cornmeal and deep fry them.

You’ll notice most of this was fried and pretty high in salt and fat.  In recent years this has come to be known as the Southern stroke diet, it is so highly correlated with strokes and heart disease.  At least at our house the ingredients were mostly unprocessed and fresh, although a lot of salt went into preserving that country ham.

Aunt Geneva’s coconut pie (a custard one, not cream), Mother’s chess pie, my grandfather’s favorite country ham, boiled in a lard stand in the back yard–and always biscuits and cornbread, it all brings home back to me.  So on this chilly fall night I think of the ones who are gone, I miss them, and I remember what they loved.

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Country Ham for Easter

Smokehouse in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Smokehouse in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

I have been hunting for a recipe for this, through all my white trash cookbooks.  I have not found a thing, not in the Cracker Barrel cookbooks, or Miss Daisy Celebrates Tennessee, or even my mother’s Sunday School class cookbook from the ’80s.  So I will try to remember what I saw, and write it down for you.

Pap, Daddy’s father, loved country ham, and he liked it boiled.  So that’s what Mother did for Easter.  The ham had been cured by storing it in a salt pack (buried in salt in a bin) and then it was smoked in the smokehouse for several days.  All this was done in the fall after the frost came, and in the early winter.

The ham was left to hang in the smokehouse and dry until wanted.  You could also put it back in the salt, as I recall, but I couldn’t swear to that.

When it was time to consider cooking it, Mother took it out and plunged a knife close to the bone, bringing it out to smell.  This is how she could tell if the ham was good or had spoiled.  If it smelled good, then she went to the next stage.

The country ham was soaked in a lard can full of water for a couple of hours, to get some of the salt out of it.  When that was over, Mother built a fire in the back yard.  The ham went back into a clean lard can which was filled with water up to a few inches from the rim.  She put the lid on, and hefted the heavy load onto the fire.  The ham cooked in the lard can for up to four hours.  I’m not sure how she decided when to take it off the fire.

When she removed it, she immediately wrapped the can in quilts and left it.  The ham continued cooking for some hours.

End result?  Sweet, moist, smoky country ham, not salty, very tender.

The New York Times article today made me remember this process!  Thanks to them for helping me recall how you cook a real country ham!

P.S.  Pap loved this.  He said Mother cooked the best ham he ever had.