From the March 25, 1951 Wilmington Sunday Star:
Easter’s here and if we didn’t know it by The-Man-Who-Washes-the-Dishes constantly humming ‘The Strife is o’er, the Battle Won’ preparatory to choir practice, there would still be grandchildren demanding more eggs for dyeing than all the hens in Delaware could lay in a year, strange splotches of color on the kitchen floor and shreds of green waxed paper in every corner of the house.
After the hardship of giving up vegetables for Lent, Potters reward themselves with a tender, succulent, roast leg of lamb. Gaunt after nearly a month of vegetable-free dining, I was really looking forward to making Gima’s Easter lamb. The Potters have had roast lamb every Christmas and Easter for as long as I’ve been around, and I took over the production a decade ago. And while mine is good, it has never been a match for Grandma Sue’s. For some reason her roasted potatoes achieve an effortless, golden crust that I’ve yet to divine the secret of, and her gravy is plentiful yet lamby without the pollution of stock. With great anticipation I ordered a little spring lamb leg from the grocer, planned my menu and alerted my dining companions. And then I looked through Gima’s scrapbook to find out how she did her lamb. Maybe I would finally figure out those potatoes. But, where was the lamb? There’s a picture of a bunny, and a recipe for…ham? Potters aren’t ham people! We’re lamb people! Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who was confused, as Gima writes in her column— “Several readers have asked us: ‘How come ham for Easter?’ We have to admit we are completely ignorant as to when and where the idea first started, for baby lamb always graced the Easter table of our youth. But for the last few years, pink delicate, smoked pork has taken its place and now seems as much a part of the occasion as turkey at Christmas.”
Aw, crap. With a regretful whimper, I canceled the lamb, and set about getting my mitts on an uncooked, Virginia country ham. Thankfully, I know people. Who know Virginia people. A few days later, I had a ham. I have very limited experience with pig in this form: it starts with the high school boyfriend who waxed poetic about the wonders of a good ham sandwich, made with “black forest ham—not that chip-chop kind” and ends a few years later with my mother placing her holiday gift ham in the oven, having failed to remove the plastic wrap. Several hours later, what we all thought looked to be a lovely ham glaze turned out, in fact, to be toxic melted plastic. But at least those pineapple rings were firmly glued in place.
An uncooked country ham has been salt cured for anywhere from six to eighteen months, and several soakings are required to remove the brine. Over the course of more than one phone call, I discovered that the good folks of Padow’s hams had already done the work for me—I had a cooked Virginia country ham. Mr. Sidney Padow was very patient with the Yankee ignoramus on the other end of the line who wanted to know what to do with the football shaped pig part in my refrigerator. “Can I cook it?” “Ma’am, the ham’s already cooked.” “Not even a little bit?” “No, you want to just slice it and eat it.” We went through Gima’s extensive ham recipe, and Sidney assured me that Padow’s does exactly what she did. I just didn’t have to do it myself. Which isn’t really the point, but I could still spell out “Happy Easter” in cloves on Mr. Ham’s fatty backside, couldn’t I? Nope, you can’t even do that. Because a country ham has the approximate texture of an aged Slim Jim that’s been rolling around in your high school back pack for a year or so, and trying to jam hundreds of cloves into it just doesn’t work. Cousin Nick was utterly defeated in his attempts to carve, collapsing into his chair after one stroke; daughter Sarah had to take over and show her old man how it’s done. Sheldon carved the remaining ham into perfect, wafer thin slices, but was afterwards discovered nursing his left wrist while muttering, “it’s like sawing wood.” My big cat, Jack, is happily gnawing on a chunk of it now. It’s a perfect chew toy, having all the toothy resilience of cheap jerky coupled with the salty hammy goodness that 10 out of 10 cats crave. Have I mentioned the salt? One is supposed to cut it very thin, because even after numerous baths, your country ham will remain witheringly salty. I mean, I like salt. Sometimes I envy those pampered deer with those big salt licks that are left out for them by well-meaning park rangers. When I was little I even tried to lick one, but Sheldon told me they had dangerous chemicals in them other than salt, so I demurred. He’s always looking out for me. This ham is so salty, your cell walls may collapse as every ounce of liquid is leeched from your body while you savor its dry-aged goodness.
The Gilberts and I ate our ham in salty silence, not sure what to make of it all. At least we had some kosher seltzer to rehydrate with. (We’re still not sure what makes it kosher). We ended the evening with Gima’s sweet Easter meringues, which turned out just as promised, with the added bonus that Nick hit a vein of undissolved food coloring that turned his entire mouth purple. While it won’t replace my favorite story of a very young Aunt Barbara smothering all of the darling colored Easter chicks—when questioned, the tiny murderess declared that she “wanted to keep them warm like a mama hen”—I think Gima would have found it just rewards for her years of keeping little Nick in Easter treats.
Now won’t someone give me a lamb?