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  • Carry On, Corned Ham
  • Bill Smith (bio)

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[End Page 130]

This will probably be the last time that I hold forth at length about corned hams. This treasure of eastern North Carolina culture has been a cause of mine since I discovered that no one had ever heard of it outside of the three or four counties around where I grew up—New Bern in Craven County. Now, the world has taken notice and my work is done. Proof of this is found in the meat counters of the Piggly Wigglys, where ham is returning after an absence of many years. I give its appearance on an episode of PbS's A Chef 's Life the credit for this. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Corned hams were always around when I was a child. The first one of the year would show up beside the turkey at Thanksgiving. There would be another one at Christmas, then probably a third on New Year's Day. Corned hams were our winter ham. By the time of my grandmother's Easter Brunch, they were replaced by a "pink" or ham sandwich ham. I never questioned this. It was just what people in the community did.

When I moved away from the coast as a young man, corned hams, along with kibbeh, labneh, and Syrian bread all vanished. The Middle Eastern food was gone because I was no longer among the Lebanese who had settled all over eastern North Carolina in the 1920s and '30s. No such explanation for corned ham. I found this inexplicable because they are so good. My father would occasionally pack one in a cardboard box and send it up to me on the bus. They are salty enough to survive the trip without refrigeration—at least, that's what I decided to believe, and it must be true because there were never any casualties. So from time to time in the fall and winter, I would host dinner parties to celebrate their arrival. Hams are big, even if you try to get a small one, so you need a large guest list. The rest of the meal would be simple—mashed potatoes, cornbread perhaps, probably salad. And the same nut torte that I always make for dessert. The parties always finished in the same way. Everyone would end up in the kitchen around the ham platter, picking at it with their fingers while they continued to drink and talk. Often, my good nights would include the question, "How did you all end up eating a whole ham?"

Once when I was home in New Bern for a visit, my father announced that Gwen was going to show me how to make my own hams so that he wouldn't have to put them on the bus anymore. Gwen, who ran the meat department at the local Pak-A-Sak, had become a friend of the family. A lesson with her was a great bit of luck, because it was around that time when corned hams began to change and then disappear from meat counters down east. People like Gwen would still make them, but you had to know who to ask to reserve such hams.

The villain in this story, I've always thought, was a new method of production that replaced the traditional one. Instead of packing the fresh ham in salt as people had always done, someone had begun injecting them with a saline solution. This [End Page 131] made for harsh and stringy hams that refused to become tender no matter how long they were cooked. Corned hams soon fell from favor and vanished. People mourned and reminisced. "They are always too tough now." "You have to order them special!" "You can never find these anymore." But Gwen and I and a few others had the secret, and it was amazingly easy. A certain amount of organizing is necessary, but the recipe is simple. There are two ingredients: a fresh ham and salt. Plus time. After years of observation, I have decided that eleven days is an optimal amount for the cure.

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