Preserving Tradition

I have wonderful memories of holiday meals with my extended family. We would all gather for every major holiday–Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter–and most of the minor holidays–Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and often Independence Day.

The faces at the table changed over time. Babies came, loved ones passed, and new husbands or wives appeared. Always present, though, was the love for each other. And the Southern Maryland Stuffed Ham.

When Ken and I got married, I insisted on a complete, traditional Southern Maryland fall menu. That had to include stuffed ham. My Dad and my grandmother spent days making enough stuffed ham for 300 people. Ken’s Eastern Shore relatives never again saw holidays meals the same way. Each time we returned from Thanksgiving or Christmas at my Mom’s house, Ken’s family asked, “Did you bring back any stuffed ham?”

Looking back, I’m amazed that Dad and Gram pulled off this feat for my wedding. Stuffed Ham is not your average meat.

If you look closely at the Thanksgiving picture above, you will see the stuffed ham in the middle of the table. “What’s all that green stuff?” you may ask. That, my friend, is the stuffing. It’s not your average stuffing made of some kind of bread and mild spices. This ham is stuffed with a bushel of fresh, leafy kale and a boatload of hot, savory spices. It’s unlike anything you’ve had before, and unlike anything you will have anywhere other than St. Mary’s County, Maryland (yes, Charles County and a small area of Virginia have their own versions of stuffed ham, but it’s not the same) and small parts of Kentucky to which early Marylanders migrated.

While the dish itself is one of the most unique you could ever have, it’s the process and the history that really make this truly different and special.

Few meals require a team, but that’s exactly what’s needed to make Southern Maryland Stuffed Ham. That’s why I’ve never tackled it myself. It’s so much work! And it can’t easily be done in a day. In fact, it’s a delicacy, the origin of which dates back to Colonial days, that’s becoming increasingly harder to find and more expensive to buy.

A few weeks ago, Ken said, “Your dad always makes the stuffed ham, but he won’t be around forever. Maybe someone else should learn how.” My dad is 84-years-young, and my husband is an avid meat connoisseur–always trying new recipes and aiming at perfecting his smoking and grilling and sausage-stuffing expertise. His scrapple–another Maryland traditional food–is wonderful!

Mom’s the expert on the stuffed ham, though, having helped her mother make it as a child (and testing it out after midnight Mass on Christmas Eve once it was cooled and set), but it’s my dad to whom Gram officially passed down the process. Dad and his mother-in-law spent many years making it together until my grandmother’s stroke in 2005.

I called my mom and told her that Ken wanted us to learn how to make the ham, and she told us that a friend of hers had asked Dad to give her a lesson, and that our timing could not have been better. They were just getting ready to set a date and order the ham. They chose Veteran’s Day because the hams would be available, and it wasn’t too close to the holidays (stuffed ham freezes beautifully, so there would be plenty for Thanksgiving and Christmas). We agreed and asked for an entire 25 pound ham just for us–Ken really loves stuffed ham!

We arrived at Mom and Dad’s early that morning. They had already been hard at work for the past 24 hours removing all the stems from the kale and readying the prep and cooking areas. I jumped in and started triple washing the kale (2 bushels of it since we were doing one ham, and Mom and Dad were doing one with Mom’s friend, Pam). Once the kale was was carefully picked over and washed three times to ensure that it was clean and clear of all dirt and critters, we started blanching it. Ken and Dad had the pots at a full rolling boil in the garage. I stirred the kale to evenly blanch it, only cooking it until it began to wilt.

Meanwhile, Mom blended a massive amount of onions in the blender until they looked like mashed potatoes, and Ken and Dad removed all the skin from the hams. Now, these are not ordinary hams. These are corned hams. You can only get them in Southern Maryland. Unlike salted ham (which is smoked in a salt rub and used in Virginia stuffed ham), corned ham is prepared like corned beef, soaked in salt brine, giving it a unique taste and texture. This method of preparing the ham is part of the mystery of stuffed ham.

There are many myths and legends as to the origin of stuffed ham. The most likely one is that it was the invention of slaves who came to Southern Maryland from the Caribbean. The primary reason for this theory is the large presence of crushed red pepper in the stuffing. It would not have been unusual for Colonial cooks to use salt, mustard seed, and celery seed, but red peppers would have been a very unusual addition. How did red pepper come to the colonies? It was brought here by Caribbean slaves.

Once the kale was blanched and drained, Dad added the onions and those spices to his batch of kale, including lots of crushed red pepper, mixing it all thoroughly by hand while Mom supervised.

Using a very long and very shape knife, Dad showed Ken how to properly make slices in the ham, going as deep as possible. The they stuffed the kale mixtures into the slices, pushing the stuffing all the way to the other side and entirely filling each of the cavities.

As we watched the men work, I told Ken and Mom’s friend, Pam, the history of this main course. It’s believed that slaves who served the Jesuit priests in the county first began making stuffed ham using leftover kale and spices after preparing Christmas dinner for the priests. They would most likely have been given a ham for their Christmas dinner, and adding the kale and spices from their homeland, would have made the meat more flavorful and more special. At some point, it’s believed that some daring cook made the meal for his or her master of the house, and a holiday tradition was adopted by the Colonists. The late 18th Century migration from Southern Maryland to Kentucky gives historians a basic timeline of when stuffed ham was first made since these remain the only two places where this particular meal is found.

How the entire process was conceived amazes me. It’s not an easy or hastily made recipe. Once the ham is stuffed, we’re still not done!

Ken and Dad finished stuffing, and Ken was as proud as a peacock with his fully stuffed ham! He has decided, though, that he wants to use even more kale (and more red pepper) and stuff more slits next time.

The next step in the process is to wrap the ham completely in cheesecloth. Once wrapped, it needs to be properly secured with twine so that the ham and stuffing stay together during the cooking process.

Remember those pots we used to blanch the kale? The same water was kept at a simmer the entire time the hams were being stuffed. Once wrapped and tied, the hams were lowered into the pots to cook for six hours!

Any true Southern Maryland (or Eastern Shore) waterman knows that a crab steamer has more than one purpose. In this case, it’s the perfect sized cooker for a 25 pound ham (we had two cookers with one ham in each). The hams were covered, and the timers were set.

It was noon, and we were all hungry! We ate lunch, then Ken went to work for the rest of the day, Dad watched my dogs and the ham, while Mom and I took dinner to my oldest, Rebecca, who was convalescing after minor surgery.

That evening, we ate dinner while the hams cooled for a bit, then Ken and I headed home with our precious cargo in the drained pot. Once back home on the Shore, we transferred the ham to a bowl and put it in the fridge. Any remaining water would drain overnight, and the ham would stay wrapped in the cheesecloth for 24 hours.

Ken was so exited the next evening when we prepared to slice the ham. It was like watching a little boy on Christmas morning, appropriate I think since stuffed ham was most likely invented as a special Christmas meal.

I supplied the platters while Ken eagerly unwrapped the ham. The first slice never made it onto the plates, and we savored the delectable taste of the ham and of our (mostly Ken’s) labors. Ken said it was almost perfect and could only have been improved by whatever special addition my grandmother would have supplied. I think that ingredient was love for her family and pride in her family’s heritage. Thankfully, our family never owned slaves, but our ancestors arrived in St. Mary’s County aboard the Ark and the Dove in 1634. The first Mass in the colony was celebrated on St. Clement’s Island in thanksgiving for a safe arrival of the Catholics seeking religious freedom in the New World. Those first families to arrive in Southern Maryland would have been among the first to taste this local delicacy about one-hundred years or so later.

By the time Ken was finished slicing the ham, we had a platter for dinner that night, two bags in the refrigerator to give to his sister and his uncle, and eight vacuum-sealed bags in the freezer. I know that Ken will enjoy every one of those meals over the next few months!

I like to think that each time our family makes Southern Maryland Stuffed Ham, we are remembering and honoring not only those generations of families who preserved this unique recipe and continued to make it over the past 400 years but also those families who invented it, the ones who don’t receive a lot of honor or thanks for the contributions they made to our country, including the foods they introduced. Some of these culinary gifts are rice (brought by slaves from West Africa), coffee (brought here by slaves from Ethiopia), Yams (a staple of Africa which was fed to the slaves on board ships), black-eyed peas (from seeds smuggled in by slaves from West Africa early in the Seventeenth Century), and okra (brought here from Ethiopia and Sudan).

We can never repay those who gifted us with these foods, paid for with their own freedom, but this Thanksgiving, I know that my family is grateful for the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the Caribbean people who introduced crushed red peppers and stuffed ham to Southern Maryland.

Wherever you are this Thanksgiving, may your table be graced with good food, loving family, and unforgettable moments. Happy Thanksgiving!

Southern Maryland Stuffed Ham

1 – 20 to 25 LB Corned Ham (with bone in)
1 Bushel freshly picked kale (store bought Kale is OK)
6 Chopped Onions
2 Tsp Cayenne Pepper Mustard Seed (1.5 oz)
Celery Seed (2 oz)
Crushed Red Pepper (1.5 oz)
2 TBS Black Pepper
Salt to taste.

Cut stems from Kale, wash and then blanch in hot boiling water. Remove Kale from stove, drain and save water, combine all other ingredients with Kale. *Onions should be chopped very fine in a blender. Add Crushed Red Pepper to suit your taste, not to exceed 2 oz. unless you really want it hot. Add saved water to the large pot you plan to boil the ham in. A large lobster or crab cooking pot with lid is best.

Place Corned Ham on table and with sharp knife, make slits for stuffing. Make slits by inserting knife into ham and pushing blade deeply into ham. The slits should be about one inch wide, and it is okay if the blade goes all the way through. These slits should be in the opposite direction from how you will slice the ham. Make a row of slits across the ham from left to right. Move down an inch or two and make a second row of slits, and a third and fourth row, making sure to go all the way through. Now turn the ham over and make sure slits are all the way through. Insert knife where necessary to complete slits. While wearing rubber gloves, use your fingers to force Kale mixture through slits, making sure to fill the slit until mixture comes out the other side of the ham Continue until all slits are filled then turn ham over and push additional stuffing into the slits that are not filled.

Take remaining Kale mixture, if any, and pat it around the outside of the ham. Do this much the same as if patting snow onto a snowman. Pat remaining stuffing around ham. Now, wrap entire ham tightly in cheesecloth. In some areas, cheesecloth can be found made like a bag. Any cheesecloth will work but the bag is much more convenient. Ask your “meat man” where you buy your ham about the bag and when he orders the ham for you, make sure he knows you want a Corned Ham, not a Honey Baked Ham or any other kind. A Corned Ham with the bone left in. If you use a bag, tie it on each end. If you use other cheesecloth, tie it, wrap it or secure it in some way with twine to make sure the ham remains wrapped so the stuffing will not come off of the ham and so you will also be able to lift the ham, bag and all, from the boiling water in order to check with meat thermometer. Some boiling pots have an insert basket with holes for draining. This is convenient and best since it makes it much easier to lift ham to check temperature or to remove it after cooking.

Lower entire ham into a large pot of boiling water. I cook mine outside or in the garage with a propane tank and crab cooker. If your cooker has a basket, use it. This makes it much easier to lift ham from pot. Boil ham 4 to 6 hours, depending on size (weight). Use a meat thermometer and make sure ham has reached at least 170 degrees throughout before turning off stove. Let ham sit in pot of hot water for about twenty minutes before placing in refrigerator, on a tray, bag and all. Tray should have some sort of grate to prevent ham from sitting in drained water. Ham may be sliced and eaten while hot but is best if allowed to cool in refrigerator overnight and served cold the next day. The next day – when removing ham from cheesecloth, save all loose Kale and serve cold in a separate bowl along with the Stuffed Ham. (Note: Some say ham should go directly into refrigerator and not let stand in water for a period of time. Your choice on this, but if you do leave it in the hot water refrigerate it immediately once you take it out.

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Amy Schisler is an award-winning author of both children’s books and sweet, faith-filled romance novels for readers of all ages. She lives with her husband and three daughters on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Her books, Picture MeWhispering Vines, and Island of Miracles are all recipients of Illumination Awards, placing them among the top inspirational fiction books of 2015, 2016, and 2017. Whispering Vines was awarded the 2017 LYRA Award for the best romance of 2016.  Island of Miracles has outsold all of Amy’s other books worldwide and ranked as high as 600 on Amazon. Her follow up, Island of Promise is a reader favorite. Amy’s children’s book is The Greatest Gift. The suspense novel, Summer’s Squall, and all of Amy’s books, can be found online and in stores. Her latest novel, Island of Promise, was recently awarded First Prize by the Oklahoma Romance Writer’s Association as the best Inspirational Romance of 2018 and was awarded a Gold Medal in the Independent Publisher Book Awards 2019 for Inspirational Fiction. It is the 2019 winner for Best Inspirational Fiction in the RWA Golden Quill Contest, Best Romance in the American Book Awards, and a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award of Fiction. Amy’s 2019 work, The Devil’s Fortune, a finalist in the Writer’s Digest Self-Publishing Awards and winner of an Illumination Award, is based, in part, on Amy’s family history. The third book of Amy’s Chincoteague Island Trilogy,  Island of Hope, was released in August of 2019. Amy’s book, Desert Fire, Mountain Rain begins her new Buffalo Springs series. Book two will be out in early 2022. The Good Wine, the sequel to Whispering Vines, is now available in all formats. 

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Amy’s books: Crabbing With Granddad (2013), A Place to Call Home (2014), Picture Me (2015), Whispering Vines (2016), Island of Miracles (2017), Stations of the Cross Meditations for Moms (2017), The Greatest Gift (2017), Summer’s Squall (2017), Island of Promise (2018), The Devil’s Fortune (2019), Island of Hope (2019), A Devotional Alphabet (2019), Desert Fire, Mountain Rain(2020), The Good Wine (2021).

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