Ham Lingo

Like so many things I eat, I wonder about the nameIn this case, it was a smoked pork picnic that got me started. Or just picnic as it’s called in the ham business. One theory, from the days before meat met Styrofoam, is that being from the shoulder and a lesser cut (there’s more fat and gristle in the front because those legs get more of a workout) the picnic would be considered food for lesser occasions like a picnic. As this cut is pretty good picnic food, maybe the naming is that simple.

Then I got wondering what a fresh ham could be. How can a ham be fresh? I thought ham meant cured, salted, or smoked, maybe a combination of those. This is important when it comes time to cook as one takes far longer than the other.

After reading for a bit I have the fresh ham moniker figured out. It’s American. This explains why I got tripped up. Canadians use American cookbooks but not always their terms. So you know, fresh ham only refers to the cut from the hind leg, the premium cut. Fresh pork from the shoulder or front leg is called a shoulder or butt, even though it’s nowhere near the back end. This cut is sometimes it’s called a Boston butt, except in Boston (I think we can guess why). But if that same cut has been cured or salted or smoked, then it gets a different name, like pork picnic or cottage roll. Feel like you need a guide? That’s why cookbooks often have two charts for pig – one for raw and the other for cured and smoked.

Grand Hams

But back to fresh ham, which is sometimes called green ham. This isn’t a good colour when talking about meat, which could be why it’s not widely used. Fresh ham, it turns out, is what Canadians call a leg of pork. The one with crackling and gravy that’s served for Sunday dinner (if anyone actually serves Sunday dinners anymore). If you have an American cookbook and want to roast a leg of pork, look up fresh ham in the index.

The hind leg is also used for the revered Virginia ham or a Smithfield ham. These are smoked and hung for as long as a year. Food people talk about them in hushed tones. It is also the cut used to make Italian prosciutto and Spanish Serrano, although flattening is part of that process so they don’t actually look much like a legs anymore.

And the grand ham of Easter dinners, the one I grew up with, the one with the canned pineapple rings stuck on with cloves and covered in a brown sugar glaze, is also the hind leg but cured.

So what about this word, ham? Where does it come from because it sure doesn’t sound like pig or pork or swine. Some say – and this seems lame to me – that because a ham is from the hind leg and legs have hamstrings it became ham. Not so. More accurately, the word comes to us through Old English, ham or hom meaning the hollow or bend of the knee. So to be completely accurate, hams are legs. It doesn’t matter if they’re raw, smoked, cured, or brined.

Cooking It

Here’s the most important thing you need to know regardless of the cut or the name – if it is an opaque pink, cook for just 10 minutes per pound. This is because curing and smoking cooks the meat so it only requires heating through. Maybe this is why we refer to ham (as I continue to call all pink pork) as being baked, as in baked ham and not roast ham.

Raw pork (and fresh ham) needs 25 minutes a pound, more if you’re wary of the government’s inspection program for eradicating trichinosis in commercial farms (there hasn’t been a case since 1977) or your pork is from the neighbour’s farm.

Confused?

There’s also gammon, a British method of treating a hind leg of a pig. It’s somewhere between America’s fresh ham and our Canadian pink ham. Like bacon, it’s more a translucent pink so has to be cooked and not simply reheated. As for the name, gammon, it’s from old French, a gambongambe or leg. I expect that’s also why detectives in noir mysteries refer to babes with great sets of gams. 

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You can see this could go on, but that’s enough of wandering through the food etymology pig pen. I think it is time for a picnic.