Read Hams and Other Hams of Dishes & Beverages of the Old South , free online book, by Martha McCulloch Williams, on

The proper boiling of a proper ham reaches the level of high art. Proper boiling makes any sound ham tolerable eating; conversely a crass and hasty cook can spoil utterly this crowning mercy of the smokehouse. Yet proper cooking is not a recondite process, nor one beyond the simplest intelligence. It means first and most, pains and patience, with somewhat of foresight, and something more of judgment.

Cut off the hock, but not too high barely the slender shankbone. Then go all over the ham with a dull knife, scraping off every bit of removable grease or soilure. Wipe afterward with a coarse, damp cloth, then lay in a dishpan and cover an inch deep with cold water. If the water is very hard soften by adding a tiny pinch of baking soda. Leave in soak all night. In the morning wash well all over, using your coarse cloth, and a little scouring soap, then rinse well in tepid water, followed by a second rinsing in cold water, drain, and wipe dry. A flat-bottomed boiler is best with one rounding, there is greater risk of scorching. Set a rack on the bottom else an old dish or earthen pieplate, pour in an inch of water, set over the fire, lay the ham upon the rack, skin side down, and fill up with cold water till it stands two inches above the meat. Take care in adding the water not to dislodge the ham from the rack. Bring the water to a boil, throw in a pint of cold water and skim the boiler very clean, going over it twice or three times. After the last skimming add half a dozen whole cloves, a dozen whole alspice, a pod of red pepper, a few whole grains of black pepper, and if you like, a young onion or a stalk of celery. Personally I do not like either onion or celery moreover they taint the fat one may save from the pot. Let the water boil hard for half a minute, no longer, then slack heat till it barely simmers. Keep it simmering, filling up the pot as the water in it boils away, until the ham is tender throughout. The time depends on several things the hardness and age of the ham, weight, curing. Fifteen minutes to the pound, reckoned from the beginning of simmering, is the standard allowance. I have no hard and fast rule my hams boil always until the fork pierces them readily, and the hip-bone stands clear of flesh.

A big ham, fifteen to twenty pounds weight, had better be left in the water overnight. A smaller one, say of ten pounds weight, should remain only until thoroughly cold. Take up carefully when cold, let drain twenty minutes, lying flesh side up in a flat dish, then trim off the under side and edges neatly, removing rusty fat, strings, etc., and cutting through the skin at the hock end. Turn over and remove the skin taking care not to tear away too much fat with it. Remove the ham to a clean, deep dish, or bowl the closer fitting the better, then pour around it either sound claret, or sweet cider, till it stands half way up the sides. Add a little tabasco or Worcester to the liquor, if high flavors are approved. Then stick whole cloves in a lozenge pattern all over the fat, sprinkle on thickly red and black pepper, and last of all, sugar brown sugar if to be had, but white will do.

Leave standing several hours, basting once or twice with the liquor in the bowl. Take out, set on a rack in an agate pan, pour the liquor underneath, and bake slowly one to two hours, according to size. Baste every fifteen minutes, adding water as the liquor cooks away. Beware scorching the ham should be a beautiful speckly dark brown all over. Let cool uncovered, and keep cool, but not on ice until eaten.

Drop a lump of ice in the boiling liquor unless the weather is cold then set it outside. As soon as the fat on top hardens take it off, boil it fifteen minutes in clear water, chill, skim off, and clarify by frying slices of raw potato in it. The spices will have sunk to the bottom, and there will be no trace of their flavor in the fat. Any boiling vegetable cabbage, string beans, navy beans, greens in general may be cooked to advantage in the liquor. It also serves as an excellent foundation for pea soup. Drain it off from the sediment, reduce a trifle by quick boiling, then add the other things. Dumplings of sound cornmeal, wet up stiff, shaped the size of an egg, and dropped in the boiling liquor, furnish a luncheon dish cheap and appetizing.

Fried ham as Mammy made it is mostly a fragrant memory only plutocrats dare indulge in it these days. She cut thin slices from the juicy, thick part of the ham, using a very sharp, clean knife. Then she trimmed away the skin, and laid the slices in a clean, hot skillet but not too hot. In about a minute she flipped them over delicately, so as to sear the other side. When enough fat had been tried out to bubble a bit, she turned them again, then set the skillet off, deadened the coals beneath it a little put it back, and let the ham cook until tender through and through. She never washed the slices nor even wiped them with damp cloths. There was no need her hands and knife were as clean as could be. Washing and wiping spoiled the flavor, she said. I agree with her. After the ham was taken up, she poured in milk, half cream, shook it well about in the hissing hot fat until it had taken up all the delicious brown essence caked on the skillet bottom. This milk gravy was poured over the slices in the platter. A practice I have never followed my gravy is made with water rather than milk, and served separately.

Invalids and gourmets may be indulged with boiled ham, broiled over live coals. Slice very thin, lay for half a minute upon a shovel of glowing fresh coals, take up in a very hot dish, butter liberally, dust with pepper and serve very hot. To frizzle ham slice as thin as possible in tiny bits, and toss the bits till curly-crisp in blazing hot butter. Excellent as an appetizer or to raise a thirst.

For ham and eggs slice and fry as directed, take up, break fresh eggs separately each in a saucer, and slip them into the fat when it is bubbling hot. Dip hot fat over them to cook the upper side take up with a cake turner, and arrange prettily as a border around the ham. Sprigs of watercress outside add to the appetizing effect. Serve with hot biscuit, or waffles or muffins, and strong, clear coffee.

Tart apples cored but not peeled sliced in rings and fried in hot fat, drained out and sprinkled lightly with sugar, add to the charm of even the finest ham. So does hominy, the full-grained sort, boiled tender beforehand, and fried till there is a thick, brown crust all over the skillet bottom. The secret of these as of all other fryings, is to have grease enough, make it hot enough to crisp whatever goes into it instantly, then to watch so there shall be no scorching, and take out what is fried as soon as done, draining well. Among the paradoxes of cookery is this frying with scant grease makes greasy eating, whereas frying in deep fat, sufficiently hot, makes the reverse.

Sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced, deserve frying in ham fat. Well drained, dusted with salt, pepper, and sugar, they are delicious, also most digestible. Frying is indeed the method of cookery most misprised through its abuse. In capable hands it achieves results no-otherwise attainable.

A perfect mutton ham is a matter of grace no less premeditation. It must be cut from a wether at least four years old, grass fed, grain finished, neither too fat, nor too lean, scientifically butchered in clear, frosty, but not freezing weather, and hung unsalted in clean, cold air for a matter of three days. Saw off shank and hip bones neatly, and cut the meat smooth, removing any tags and jags, then pack down in an agate or clean wooden vessel that has been scalded, then chilled. Half cover with a marinade thus proportioned. One pint pickling salt to one gallon cold water, boil and skim clean, then add one pint vinegar, a dozen each of whole cloves, allspice and pepper corns, a pod of red pepper, a teaspoon of powdered saltpeter, and a small cup of oil. Simmer for half an hour, and cool before pouring on the meat. Let it lie in the liquor a week, turning it twice daily. Take from marinade, wipe, and lay in air, return the marinade to the fire, boil up, skim well, then add enough plain brine to fully cover the hams, skim again, cool and pour over, first scalding out the containing vessel. Let stand a week longer, then drain well, wipe with a damp cloth, rub over outside with a mixture of salt, moist sugar, and ground black pepper, and hang in a cool, airy place where the hams can be lightly smoked for a fortnight. Winter-curing, or late fall, alone is possible to the average householder. After smoking, wrap in waxed paper, and canvas the same as other hams.

Cook the same as venison, which mutton thus cured much resembles. Slice and broil, serving with butter and very sour jelly, else boil whole in very little water until tender, glazing with tart jelly, and crisping in the oven after draining and cooling. Or soak two hours in cold water, then cover completely with an inch-thick crust of flour and water mixed stiff, and bake in a slow oven four to five hours. Serve always with very piquant sauce, and sharp pickle, or highly spiced catsups. Make jelly from wild grapes, wild plums, green grapes, green gooseberries or crab apples, using half the usual amount of sugar, especially for such meat.

Melt half a glass of such jelly with a tablespoon of boiling water. Add black pepper, paprika, a dash of tabasco, and the strained juice of a lemon, add gradually a teaspoon of dry mustard. Cook over hot water until well mixed and smooth, and keep hot until served.

Beef hams are troublesome but worth the trouble. Take them from small but well fatted animals, cut off the shank, also part of the top round. Rub over very scantly with powdered saltpeter, mixed well through moist sugar, then lay down in salt for a fortnight, else cover with brine made thus. Pint pickling salt to the gallon of cold water, teaspoon sugar, and pinch of whole cloves. Boil and skim. Pour cold over the hams in a clean barrel. Let stand a fortnight, take out, drain and wipe, rub over with dry salt, and hang high in cold air. Smoke lightly after three days. Keep smoking, but not too much, for a month. Cover all over with ground black pepper, mixed to a paste with molasses, canvas and leave hanging.

Slice and broil, else chip and serve raw. Frizzling is possible but a waste of God’s good mercies. Properly cured meat is salt but not too salt, of a deep blackish-red, and when sliced thin, partly translucent, also of an indescribable savoriness. Cut as nearly as possible, across the grain. Do not undertake to make beef hams save in the late fall, so there may be cold weather for the curing. The meat must be chilled through before salt touches it, but freezing is very detrimental. Frozen meat does not absorb the salt, sugar, etc., essential to proper curing. By time it thaws so absorption becomes possible, there may have been changes such as take place in cold storage, unfitting it for food. If the beef ham is thick it may need to lie a month in salt or in brine. Here as elsewhere, the element of judgment comes into play.

If rabbits are very plenty and very fat, put down a jar of hindquarters in marinade for three days, then wipe, and hang in a cold, dry place. A rabbit ought to be dressed before it is cold thus it escapes the strong flavor which makes market rabbits often unendurable. Chill but do not freeze after dressing. A light smoking does not hurt the quarters, which should be left double, with the thick loin between. Soak two hours before cooking, and smother with plenty of butter, black and red pepper and a dash of pepper vinegar. An excellent breakfast or luncheon relish.

To cook a fresh ham properly, choose one weighing ten pounds or less, scrape and wash clean, score the skin, all over, then season well with salt, sugar, black and red pepper, and dot with tabasco on top. Set on a rack in a deep pan, pour boiling water underneath to barely touch the meat, cover close, and bake in a hot oven for two hours, filling up the water in the pan as it bakes away. Uncover, and cook for half an hour longer, slacking heat one half, and basting the meat with the liquor in the pan. If approved add a cup of cider or sound claret to the basting liquor. Leave unbasted for ten minutes before taking up, so the skin may be properly crisp.