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.

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Holiday Cooking Disasters, or Almost

I’m always nervous when it’s time to cook a big holiday meal, or even to contribute toward a group effort at one.  I spent many years not cooking for big events, and I still happily go to my sister’s house or a friend’s house for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter or any other big foodie holiday.

I have finally learned to cook that turkey and bake that ham.  But I’m scarred by previous experiences.  The first time I roasted a turkey, for a Christmas party some years ago, I used a cooking bag (highly recommended).  I did not stuff it, because my family believes in dressing, baked outside the turkey, instead of stuffing, baked inside the turkey, so that’s what I do.  The turkey came out beautifully golden brown, with a moist breast and nicely done drumsticks.  Then I went to carve it, and found the plastic bag in the cavity with the giblets and neck in it.  Woops!  I didn’t say a word, just carved away.

Hams are capable of error as well, even pre-cooked ones that you just have to warm in the oven for a few hours.  I discovered that when I baked a ham–years ago, I swear–for the residents’ dinner at my local YMCA.  I had peeled off the layer of thin cellophane or plastic the meat packer encases the ham with before I put it in the oven.  How was I to know there was a second coat, a red one to match the skin?  Fortunately I figured this out when the ham began to get warm and emit an unusual odor.

Then there was the year I dropped a giant pot of sweet potatoes (already sweetened and spiced, of course) in the sink.  That one broke my heart.  All that work down the drain!  And I burned my hand, which is what made me drop it in the first place.

Fortunately, making mistakes is a great, if painful, way to learn.  I can bake a lovely ham now, or roast a fine turkey.  Holidays are safe at my house, I promise.  And thank goodness someone else is cooking this year!

 

Home Cooking

Fried Chicken
Photo credit: Niall Kennedy

I have my mother’s recipes.  When she had to move to a nursing home some years ago after having a stroke, my sisters and I cleaned out her apartment, and the recipes went home with me.  Most of them are not anything you would want to cook now—classic ‘50’s and ‘60’s concoctions she’d torn out of women’s magazines, full of Campbell’s soup or condensed milk, or even, God forbid, that syrupy Eagle Brand stuff.  But the notecards have the recipes I remember as a child, growing up in Tennessee.

Some of them are so terse they are unintelligible.  I called Mother at the nursing home and asked her about Mama’s Tea Cakes.  (Mama was Mother’s mother.)  It calls for “flour,” no amount specified.  “What do you mean, ‘flour’?” I asked her.  “How much?  Two cups?”  She said slowly, “Enough flour.  You’ll know when you see it.”  True enough for someone who made biscuits from scratch all the time, but not for me.  I finally figured out how much by the texture, when the dough was just dry enough and not too dry.  I wrote down the amount for future use.

The chocolate pie recipe became a matter of contention after Mother died in 2004.  For some reason I took a notion to bake it for the first time in years.  There were two versions, and neither was complete—oven temperature?  How long do you bake it?  None of my sisters remembered, and they had variant versions from our aunt Elsie.  Finally, after comparing with a hokey hillbilly cookbook from a Cracker Barrel store, I think I got the definitive recipe.

Mother’s Southern Baptist Sunday School class cookbook was a great source of recipes as well.  I have their recommendation on how to cook perfect fried chicken every time.  I’ve had to adapt the cooking time, because chickens now are bred to have bloated breasts and take longer to cook.  

When I was growing up, everything was fried, even the vegetables, unless they were “cooked down” with a piece of fat meat.  Dessert was a part of every meal, sometimes just biscuits with butter and jam or sorghum molasses, but always there.  Mother cooked three meals a day, every day, and cooked for whoever was home, including the workers getting in the tobacco in the fall, as many as 10 or 12 people.

 My family has a terrible history of heart disease and high blood pressure.  All of us try to cook healthy things now, which pretty much kills everything I grew up with.  But every once in a while I throw caution to the wind and make that chocolate pie, or a Baptist pound cake, which requires a pound of butter and six eggs, or even fry some chicken.   It makes my tiny condo kitchen smell like home.