Damon Lee Fowler takes on the subject of ham in the latest book in the Savor the South series by UNC Press.
Fowler, the author of nine, mostly Southern cookbooks and a resident of Savannah, Ga., knows his subject. The biggest challenge for him probably was whittling down all his knowledge and recipes to fit the slim Savor the South format of 50 recipes and 141 recipes.
Still, the result, “Ham” ($19.95), serves a veritable primer for anyone interested, Southerner and non-Southerner alike.
Of course, us Southerners know and love our ham, perhaps more than anyone, Fowler says, with the possible exceptions of the Italians and Spaniards.
Thank the Spaniard colonists in 16th-century Florida for introducing pigs to the South. Little did they know what a debt we would owe them.
Pigs, Fowler notes, were well-suited to early colonists. They would eat almost anything and didn’t require much attention.
The only problem with pigs was making sure all that good meat didn’t go to waste in the years before refrigeration.
Hog killings took place in fall when cooler weather set in because of pork’s perishability. Still, most of that harvest had to be eaten right away without some way to preserve it.
Enter salt curing, and the South’s ham legacy was born. “Cured pork therefore became a critical source of animal protein and a staple in every diet, whether the household was rich or poor, at liberty or enslaved,” Fowler wrote in the book.
First lady Martha Washington, who did her share of entertaining at Mount Vernon, is said to have gone through a ham a day. And salt pork was a staple fuel for field workers.
Fowler said that up until a few years ago, the art of salt-curing was dying out. But he said that the trend has reversed in recent years. He also notes that interest in more flavorful heritage breeds of pork has brought us back from the abyss of mass-produced bland meat.
These are small movements, but they are growing — and they both signal hope for a Southerner’s love of ham made in the the traditional fashion.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be a traditional dry-cured country ham to whet Fowler’s appetite, and his recipes reflect that. “We love ham just about any and every way it’s made and cooked: brine- or dry-cured, smoked or not, boiled, baked, glazed, not glazed, honey-baked and spiral-cut, thinly sliced and piled into biscuits or on sourdough bread, fried and served with grits and red-eye gravy, deviled, creamed,” and on and on.
Fowler squeezed as many as these preparations as he could into “Ham.”
The recipe section begins with basic techniques for baking, frying, boiling ham and more.
Appetizers and Soups includes ham and crab gumbo, ham-bone soup, ham-wrapped asparagus and chilled melon and ham soup.
Fowler includes five recipes for ham and eggs, including a ham and cheese frittata.
A chapter on salads and sandwiches serves up ham-stuffed buttermilk biscuits, deviled ham, grilled ham and pimento cheese and more.
Other recipes include ham steak baked in Coca-Cola, ham and macaroni pie (or casserole), shrimp and ham jambalaya, and ham and potato gratin.
Fowler freely sprinkles the pages with international dishes, such as ham lo mein, saltimbocca alla Romana (veal with ham and sage) and croque Monsieur (a French take on ham and cheese). He notes that Southerners are pretty welcoming when it comes to new ways to cook ham.
In other words, here in the South, you can never have too many ham recipes.
Recipe adapted from “Ham” (UNC Press)
[email protected] (336) 727-7394