When was the last time you celebrated a holiday in Southern Maryland without stuffed ham?
A staple at Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, stuffed ham is a uniquely Southern Maryland dish. Get too far out of the region, and you might be shocked to learn that it’s not on the table everywhere when the holidays roll around.
For the uninitiated, Southern Maryland stuffed ham is a corned (or brined) ham filled with a stuffing of kale and/or cabbage, onions, and black and red pepper. Other versions include celery, celery seed, or mustard seed in the filling. Wrap the ham in muslin or cheesecloth and let it cool. Stuffed ham is a dish best served cold.
Which is the right recipe?
Well, that depends on who you ask – and where you grew up. With roots in St. Mary’s County specifically, stuffed ham doesn’t look the same in the southern part of the county as it does in the north. If you live in northern St. Mary’s, you probably use more kale than cabbage, says Annapolis-based food historian Joyce White. In the southern part of the category, she notes, they tend to use more cabbage than kale.
“It is a recipe that has largely been passed down through oral tradition,” White writes on her blog. “No pre-modern written recipes exist.”
Also under debate? The history of stuffed ham. White reports that there are four theories:
- That stuffed ham is related to a similar English dish called stuffed chine. In this case, pork is stuffed with parsley and other herbs like lettuce leaves, thyme, marjoram, sage, or blackcurrant leaves.
- That the slave of the Jesuit priests at St. Inigoes invented it.
- That slaves may have been given the pig’s jaw, and they stuffed the pockets of that meat with greens and spices.
- That slaves were given stuffed ham at Christmas. It was stuffed to make the meat go further.
And those red pepper spices? White says they are not originally part of the traditional diet among settlers here, but may have been introduced by the slaves.
Not every family makes a stuffed ham each holiday – they can be quite big and labor intensive – so many stores in St. Mary’s County have stepped up to make them for the holidays and every day. Visit St. Mary’s lists five area markets and restaurants known for their stuffed ham: Chaptico Market, Murphy’s Town & Country Market, WJ Dent & Sons, St. Mary’s Landing Restaurant, and area McKay’s stores.
Word might be getting out. Earlier this month, the New York Times profiled three of Southern Maryland’s premier stuffed ham makers: Andy Dent, who prepared stuffed ham for WJ Dent & Sons, until his death in February; Gilbert Murphy, of Murphy’s Town & Country; and Bobby Bowes, who with his family prepared dozens of them each Christmas for fundraisers. Bowes also died in February.
And in November, the Baltimore Sun reported on the popularity of stuffed ham in Southern Maryland and interviewed a stuffed ham maker in Anne Arundel County.
So, tell us: Who do you think makes the best stuffed ham?
(Images via WJ Dent & Sons website.)
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