The pink, tender, bouncy butt of the pig traditionally is eaten by Christians in America to celebrate both the birth and the resurrection of Jesus. And also in Europe: In fact, during Holy Week in the Basque Country of deepest southwest France, there is a five-hundred-year-old festival dedicated exclusively to the air-dried, orange-colored Bayonne ham, which is similar to prosciutto.
Ham is undoubtedly one of the most universally beloved of meats, at least in those parts of the world where it’s not prohibited. Pig meat of any kind has been historically forbidden by Muslim and Jewish dietary law, known, respectively, as halal and kashruth. One anthropological theory is that the pig was deemed by ancient lawmakers to be too much like a human being: hairless and flesh-skinned, omnivorous (destructive to fragile desert ecosystems), sloppy, and unwashed. And they found that the taste was too close to human meat (how they knew this is something of a mystery) and therefore associated it with cannibalism, something Christians, with their doctrine of transubstantiation, don’t seem to have any trouble with, at least metaphorically.
In Goa, a western state of India, there’s a sizable Christian population, thanks to Portuguese explorers who arrived in 1498, bringing with them Jesus and pork…as well as chilies, coriander, pineapple, papaya, eggplant, pumpkins, and cashews. Goa pork sausage, which is very similar to chourico, is traditionally cooked in curry, vindaloo, and pulau. These cured sausages come in very handy during the Indian monsoon season, when fish from the Arabian Sea are scarce, and they also have long been a staple of Goan seafarers’ diets.
The Chinese, who were always ahead of the rest of the world in so many culinary (and other) matters, domesticated wild pigs by about 4900 BC and have enjoyed pork ever since. By about 1500 BC, the Europeans had figured it out too. Christopher Columbus brought eight pigs with him on his 1493 voyage to Cuba, at the insistence of Queen Isabella, but it wasn’t until Hernando de Soto landed in Tampa Bay in 1539 that domesticated pigs caught on over here.
Soto’s thirteen pigs became the breeding stock for America’s entire pork industry. The Native Americans quickly developed a taste for pork, and some of their worst attacks on the newcomers were pig raids. Some pigs, the forebears of the contemporary razorbacks, escaped captivity and established colonies in the wild. By the time Soto died, only three years after he’d arrived, his original herd of thirteen pigs had exploded to a population of over seven hundred, not counting the ones that had been eaten, had escaped, or were stolen by or bartered to the Native Americans.
The cut of meat called “ham” refers to the heavy-muscled part of a hog’s rear quarter, between hip and hock. There are two kinds of ham: raw and cooked. Raw ham is cured with salt and/or smoke over time; cooked ham is boiled. Every culture that makes ham has its own unique and various methods. The best French cooked hams are called au torchon (in a cloth) or au bouillon (in broth), because both methods are employed in its production. First, a fresh pig haunch is injected with a brine of salt and aromatics, straight into the venous system. It’s left to steep for three days, then wrapped in a cloth, the torchon, and cooked in a court bouillon, a finely composed stock. The bone is removed after cooking.
Instead of being injected with brine, dry-cooked—or dry-cured—hams, are rubbed with a mixture of salt, saltpeter, aromatics, sugar, and pepper and hung in drying chambers, with or without smoke, to cure for as long as several years. One of the most delicious of these is Corsican ham, called prisuttu, which is made from chestnut-eating free-roaming pigs; each ham spends forty days in a brine tub after being washed, skinned, and rubbed with pepper. Prisuttu is smoked for three to four days, then left to age for several months, like good wine.
Parma ham, or prosciutto, from Italy, is cured for eight to ten months; Westphalia ham, from Germany, is dry-salted and then smoked for a week with special regional wood. Black Forest ham is salted and seasoned with garlic, coriander, pepper, and juniper berries; cured for two weeks; and then cold-smoked at 77° Fahrenheit for several weeks; the smoke comes from burning fir brush and sawdust, and it turns the ham black on the outside. After this, the ham is dried for another two weeks.
American “country ham” and Virginia or Smithfield ham, which originated in the rural South, are salt-cured (most often with nitrites, carcinogenic though they are) for one to three months, hickory smoked, then aged for as long as three years. Famously salty, this ham is similar to prosciutto, except that it’s smoked and not as moist.
Country ham is baked whole, usually with a glaze, sometimes studded with cloves, and served as the centerpiece of Christmas and Easter feasts. Slabs of ham are traditionally the star of a typical meal in American restaurants (giving double meaning to the word ham as a theatrical scene-stealer) whose supporting actors are mashed potatoes, gravy, and sides. In the South, these might include collard greens and sweet potatoes; in the Midwest, macaroni and cheese with a crumbled potato-chip topping and green beans; in New England, baked beans and something creamed, either onions or spinach.
The now notorious Paula Deen provides a recipe for cola-basted ham that calls for bathing the meat in cola, pineapple rings, brown sugar, maraschino cherries, and cloves. This sounds plausible enough, if slightly junky and overly sweet, but a 1947 recipe for ham banana rolls should win some sort of prize for flat-out weirdness; it sounds revolting in theory, but I would not be altogether shocked if it turned out to be strangely delicious. Thin slices of boiled ham are spread with mustard and wrapped around peeled, barely ripe bananas, then covered in cheese sauce and baked for half an hour.
Arguably, though, the best use of ham is between two pieces of bread. The croque-monsieur is a grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich made with Emmenthaler or Gruyère that’s topped with a nutmeg béchamel. This is arguably the king of the ham sandwich and the pinnacle of ham use. And in Italy, salty, paper-thin prosciutto is wrapped around sweet, ripe slices of melon or served with a pecorino on (preferably) unsalted Tuscan bread.
While he was growing up, my boyfriend, Brendan, learned to make classic, simple, rustic Italian dishes from Marcella, the cook and housekeeper, now retired, at the Tuscan villa where he spent much of his childhood. By far my favorite of these is Marcella’s pizza. Although Brendan has never been able to replicate her crust perfectly (the recipe is something of a secret), it does involve some ideal combination of flour, sugar, salt, yeast, and water, rolled out and sprinkled with olive oil. Then comes a layer of finely chopped black olives, capers and anchovies, followed by sliced fresh mozzarella and two handfuls of roughly chopped prosciutto cotto, Italian boiled ham. Over that is spread a light tomato sauce of pureed tomatoes, pepper, herbs, and salt. It’s then baked hot and fast. This is the best pizza—and I mean this—that I have ever had, and the savory, salty ham is the key to its lusciousness.
In Pantagruel, François Rabelais wrote, “While round a fat ham we drink together, the storms pass off, and give way to good weather.” Ham is the happiest of foods.