Gustatory pride of Southern Maryland Dish: Food investigators have pointed their fingers at stuffed ham, but it is a regional treasure that has been pleasing crowds since Colonial days.

November 12, 1997|By Maria Hiaasen | Maria Hiaasen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

HELEN -- It's been poked and prodded by lab technicians, skewered by talk-show hosts and misunderstood by the masses. In the past week, outsiders have come to know it merely as the culprit in one of Maryland's biggest salmonella outbreaks.

But in St. Mary's County -- where budding cooks help their mamas chop greens for the dish before they can tie their own apron strings -- stuffed ham remains a gastronomic treasure. It's a staple of the holiday buffet table, a crowd pleaser that takes a day to prepare, a food unique to the area and rich in local lore.

Follow Maryland Routes 5 and 235 -- which bisect this peninsular county as it juts southeast to Chesapeake Bay -- and you'll find purveyors of stuffed ham, Southern Maryland's sharply seasoned (some might say bitter) signature dish. Pass the fields of kale and sweet potatoes dotted with the occasional tobacco barn. Follow the hand-painted signs to a local church dinner. On hand will be cooks who are confident in their ham-stuffing techniques and pleased that their trademark local dish remains obscure elsewhere.

"You go to other states and mention stuffed ham, and they look at you like, 'What planet are you from?' " says Ada Russell of Morganza, one of the dozen or so cooks manning the kitchen Sunday at Mother Catherine Spalding Elementary School during the St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church dinner.

Neighbors in Virginia don't even know how to do it, she says: "They're too busy with Smithfield [smoked] hams."

Itemizing the required ingredients for stuffing a ham, Russell notes that she's taken to adding cauliflower to the usual stuffing mix of kale, cabbage, onions, celery, flaked red pepper and mustard seed.

"I'll probably get laughed out of the county for telling you about that cauliflower," she says, wincing.

But a pair of Mechanicsville volunteers helping with the dinner also confess to tinkering with a recipe that dates from Colonial times.

Joann Bradley says a little Mrs. Dash seasoning and onion salt perk up the stuffing. And Mary Ashton says she no longer carves a series of half-moon slits in the ham carcass to provide access for the stuffing. Now she just piles seasoned greens straight into the cavity that's left behind when the ham's bone is removed.

The purists here in Maryland's first incorporated county would call that shortcut heresy, but cooks and diners anywhere else are likely perplexed by all this talk of stuffing a ham.

We say "ham" and think pink meat studded with cloves and topped with a sweet pineapple glaze. But a stuffed ham -- which is made from a brine-soaked or corned ham -- is white or pale pink at best. It's boiled, sliced thinly (it's practically shaved), usually served cold, and packs a robust taste. Credit that stuffing, which may contain as much as a half-bushel of kale, 12 bunches of green onions, and two medium cabbages for a 20-pound ham.

Origin of dish

Who devised such a dish? According to John Shields, author of "The Chesapeake Bay Cookbook" (Aris Books, 1990), St. Mary's stuffed ham originated during the 17th century on the plantations along the Patuxent River, likely the result of a melding of English and African cuisine.

Given an allotment of meager pork jowls after hog killings, African slaves added flavor by filling them with a mixture of their native greens.

Later, English landowners adopted the technique and stuffed their corned hams. Over the three centuries since then, generations of St. Mary's County cooks have adapted the dish to their liking.

"It's sort of like we guard our recipes for crab cakes, but almost all of them taste the same," Shields says.

As Baltimore eateries offer crab cakes, St. Mary's restaurants offer stuffed ham sandwiches. At Hill's Halfway House, a restaurant at the fork in State Roads 5 and 235, the sandwich is served on white, wheat or rye bread for $3.10. For ten cents extra, they'll stack your stuffed ham on a Kaiser roll. Savor those cooked-tender mustard seeds, which elude the incisors and linger on the gum line even after the meat has passed your gullet.

Ask for mayo, and the waitress will know you're from out of town.

But the usual presentation of stuffed ham is more upscale. It is usually featured as an elegant and colorful appetizer served on a buffet at Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, says William Taylor, a St. Mary's County chef and caterer for 25 years. It is his stuffed ham recipe that is featured in Shields' cookbook.

"I like it served with a tiny cocktail-sized biscuit," he says. "Pair it with a glass of champagne or a cocktail or a martini, and you've really got something."

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