Save the Turkey: Stuff the Ham
Full disclosure: I’m not a fan of green eggs — or ham. In spite of Sam’s urgings, I say ham is a good chunk of pork wasted, no matter if it’s smoked, spiced, spiraled or, heaven forbid, stuffed.
Stuffing belongs in turkeys. Maybe a pork chop. But never a ham. Try it? No way, I sniffed.
Even after more than two decades living in Calvert County, I still turned my nose at the locally celebrated gastronomical confusion known as Southern Maryland stuffed ham.
I never got close to one, never even set eyes on one.
Until last New Year’s Eve, when at a friend’s party, I followed my nose to the buffet where there sat a platter heaped with chopped greens, flakes of red pepper and pieces of pink — eegads — ham.
What is this? I asked another guest.
Eyebrow arched at my ignorance, she informed me that the intoxicating aroma was rising from none other than that infamous stuffed ham.
I took a bite.
My taste buds exploded.
It was, quite simply, delicious.
That Sam I Am, he was right.
If you’re not from these parts, a Southern Maryland stuffed ham is probably a mystery. The recipe and cooking methods vary family to family, but the basics are pretty consistent. Unlike basic bread stuffing, the base for ham stuffing is fresh kale and/or cabbage and onions. Seasonings like mustard seed, red pepper and cayenne are proprietary: some like it mild; others kick it up a notch.
The ham, preferably corned, as in brined rather than smoked, is de-boned and the cavity stuffed. More stuffing pockets are made by cutting slits around the outside of the ham. When every nook and cranny is at capacity, even more stuffing is packed around the ham. It’s all held in place with a cotton bag or cheese cloth, tied tightly to keep the stuffing from falling off. The ham is either baked or boiled until fully cooked.
Its origin is local lore. Some say the recipe originated in merry olde England, brought to Maryland aboard the Ark and the Dove with the first colonists in 1634.
Another version traces the recipe to later in the 17th century, when slaves, left to make the best of inferior pieces of leftover pork, added fresh vegetables and spices to the throw-away meat, boiling it until the meat was tender and infused with flavor. The story goes the plantation owner liked the slaves’ spicy blend so much that the dish became a regular on his table.
Still another take attributes the concoction to a cook — also a slave — at St. Inigoes Manor, who created the dish when she wanted to make something special for the resident Jesuit priests after their long Lenten fast.
More pragmatic storytellers credit a frugal farmer’s wife, who, unable to waste any food, combined leftover greens with pieces of pork.
Whatever the origin, the recipe has been tweaked by generations of Southern Marylanders and passed down through families, a steadfast tradition for their holiday tables.
Stuffed ham season begins with Thanksgiving, since traditional hog butchering can begin only when the weather turns cold.
Celeste Furey is a Maryland native, with both sides of her family tree rooted in the original St. Mary’s colony. Stuffed ham is part of her ancestral heritage.
“I can’t remember a time when we didn’t have stuffed ham on holidays,” Furey tells Bay Weekly. “Our hams were never store-bought. Someone always made them, my mother, my aunts or my grandmother.”
|Celeste Furey's son, Anthony Malatesta serenades the chopping crew at Furey's annual "piggy poke."|
When Furey was 18 years old, the family tradition was passed on to her.
“My mother pulled a Tom Sawyer,” Furey says. “She let me think ham duty was this great honor. I didn’t realize how much work it takes.”
Furey accepted the responsibility, though her first attempt wasn’t a complete success.
“My grandmother, my mother’s mom, took a bite and pronounced the ham wasn’t fit to eat,” Furey recalls. “She said the ingredients weren’t chopped right.”
Three decades later, Furey has mastered the technique and is keeping the tradition alive and well — and not just within her family.
One day every year, Furey and her husband Pat — though Celeste says the whole stuffing thing makes him nervous — turn their historic St. Leonard farm, Pin Oak, into ham-stuffing central. Furey pulled her own Tom Sawyer, reeling in not only her son but also a circle of friends and friends of friends. Her annual ‘piggy poke’ party is attended by 20 to 25 people who rinse, chop and stuff 15 hams in one long day.
It’s not a task for the weak-wristed.
“It takes seven to eight hours just to chop everything,” Furey says. “When I walk in with still another bag of kale, everyone groans.”
Furey starts gathering ingredients days earlier. Dry seasonings are measured and stored in a jar, the hams are purchased from a local supplier and the kale and cabbage is freshly picked from a friend’s family farm.
|Celeste Furey, friends and family mix stuffing ingredients.|
Her shopping list is hefty: 75 pounds of kale, 90 pounds of cabbage, 45 pounds of onions and many cups of seasoning.
Years of experience have yielded only a few shortcuts — including Furey’s clever method of washing 165 pounds of field-fresh leafy greens.
“We fill mesh bags with the greens,” she says. “The bags are run through my washing machine’s rinse and spin cycle.”
It still takes a while, though it’s much easier than hand-washing.
But hand-chopping rules; no food processors allowed. Still smarting from her grandmother’s early criticism, Furey keeps a sharp eye out for slackers.
“I go around and poke hams to make sure they stuff deep enough,” she says. “They call me the Chop Nazi.”
At day’s end, tired friends leave lugging a fully stuffed ham wrapped in cheese cloth and clutching cooking directions. Furey is particular about the final step: her hams are always boiled, never baked.
“Using a huge pot, bring the water to a boil,” she explains. “Then keep it on a slow simmer, the blub-blub stage, for about six hours. The ham will float when it’s done.”
The Furey family tradition is safe for at least another generation. Her 27-year-old son Anthony, a musician, and his wife Rachel are part of the annual ritual.
“It’s good to know that when I want to pull out,” she says, “there is another generation to take over.”
Hams continue to be stuffed in Southern Maryland kitchens — but for family and lucky friends. If you’re not on the receiving end, there are still a few local groceries that stuff hams to sell.
Native to St. Mary’s, Joe Barickman has been eating stuffed hams his entire life. Like Furey, he can’t recall a holiday without one. At Ridge Market — near Pt. Lookout in St. Mary’s County — he stuffs about 75 hams a season.
“We use only corned hams,” Barickman says. “Our stuffing has cabbage, kale, onions and lots of spice. We like ’em spicy.”
The cooked hams — “we bake them instead of boiling them,” Barickman says — are for sale at Ridge Market or shipped wherever you may be feasting.
In Prince Frederick and Waldorf, the local Nick’s grocery chain still stuffs and sells hams.
“Our stuffing is unique,” says Dave Williams, assistant store manager in Prince Frederick. “We use kale, cabbage, onions, celery, watercress, parsley, salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, red pepper, oregano and mustard seed.”
Williams par-cooks the greens, adds the spices and lets the mixture “macerate” for two days. The stuffed hams are wrapped in cheesecloth and frozen. Each ham comes with cooking instructions.
Gordon and Dale Bowen at Bowen’s Market in Huntingtown sell stuffed hams, but they don’t make them. They get theirs from Maryland’s only certified, stuffed ham production factory — and probably the northernmost producer — Brandy Farms in Gambrills.
Childhood memories inspired owner Mike Baldea to expand his seasonal bait-and-tackle business into a ham-stuffing enterprise.
“When I was a child we often went to St. Mary’s County to visit family and friends,” Baldea tells Bay Weekly. “I remember stuffed hams from those visits. We’d take a break from playing, run inside and put some ham on a biscuit. It was so good.”
When Baldea threw a party for his mother’s 40th birthday, a stuffed ham was on the menu. But he couldn’t find one in Anne Arundel County.
“We had to drive to Southern Maryland,” Baldea recalls. “I thought, I need to try making this ham.”
He did, and entered it at the St. Mary’s County Fair. That first year his ham placed third out of 25 entries, and for the next two years, Baldea’s hams stayed in the top three.
“The fourth year we finally got first place,” Baldea says. “It was the last blue ribbon awarded at the St. Mary’s fair for a stuffed ham.”
Baldea continued to make hams as gifts. The hams were so popular, his friends urged him to start selling them. He heeded their call and, in 1988, he went into the stuffed ham business.
“We built a commercial kitchen, got health department approval and started to sell.”
Brandy Farms produces hams only during the holidays. Stuffing starts at Halloween and stops at Christmas. Three cooks turn out 16 hams a day. In eight weeks, an average of 400 hams are stuffed and sold directly to customers at their Gambrills location — and at Bowen’s Market. Baldea also ships hams far and wide.
Anywhere outside Maryland, that’s probably the only way to put a Southern Maryland stuffed ham on your table.
Unless you were born to the tradition.