Like so many things I eat, I wonder about the origin of the name. I should know better than to wonder. One thing led to another and I ended up searching ham lingo. Besides the Internet, I turned to cookbooks and their meat cooking charts.
My wondering started with a smoked pork picnic – or a picnic as it’s called in the pork biz. Why is it called this? One theory (named before meat met Styrofoam ) is that is was perfect for a picnic. Duh. The pork picnic is from the shoulder, the front. The front has more fat and gristle because this area gets more of a workout than the back legs. And because a picnic is a casual occasion you don’t need to show off by serving a premium cut (though you should always show off your cooking prowess). This cut is definitely not the best, but it makes fine picnic fare.
Ham Lingo is Confusing
There’s fresh pork, cured pork (curing makes it pink – chemical or natural curing is another story), and smoked pork (also another story). You can have smoked with fresh or cured pork, but some smoking only flavours the meat (like bacon) while some cooks it (pulled pork is smoked barbecued low and slow).
Curing is complicated so don’t try curing at home without first attending a class or having a mentor.
But there’s more. Once the meat is cured it’s called by another name even though it’s the same cut of meat. A butt (which is raw) is a picnic when cured.
Don’t ask why it’s called the butt, it’s nowhere near the back end. Sometimes it’s called a Boston butt except in Boston (I think we can guess why).
I use a cookbook as my guide. They usually have two cooking charts for the pig – one for raw and the other for cured. You need to know what you have when it’s time to cook as raw pork takes 25-30 minutes a pound and cured pork only takes 10 minutes a pound.
After I sorted out picnics I got stumped about fresh ham. How can a ham be fresh? To me, and to my Canadian cookbooks, all ham is pink (cured) and it doesn’t matter which cut. So what was this recipe I was looking at when it asked for fresh ham? What did a fresh ham even look like?
After reading for a bit I have the fresh ham moniker figured out. You ready? It’s American. This explains why I got tripped up. Canadians use American cookbooks but not always their terms. Fresh ham is what we Canadians call a leg of pork. It refers to the cut from the hind leg. It’s the pork’s premium cut – in any country.
Ham, Ham, Ham
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. It seems it’s more accurate to assume the word comes to us through Old English, ham or hom meaning the hollow or bend of the knee. In which case hams are legs. Unless you’re Canadian, then ham is the term for all cured (and therefore pink) pork.
The Hind Leg
Back to the grand cut – the hind leg of pork.
Fresh ham and roast of pork are the same thing. I have that sorted now. It’s 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 the cut used for the revered Virginia or a Smithfield ham (Smithfield is in Virginia). Side note, and just to further confuse us, southerners sometimes call this cut a green ham before it’s been prepared. I don’t think green is a good colour when talking about meat. Anyway, Virginia or Smithfield hams are also called country hams, presumably because this style of curing is traditionally done in the many parts of the US. Wherever it’s done it’s hung for a long while – typically a year. Food people talk about this ham in hushed tones because there’s a particular way of creating one, often on some farm in the backwoods of Appalachia.
The ham of the Easter dinners of my upbringing is a cousin to the country ham. It’s good too, even if it is decorated with canned pineapple rings and maraschino cherries that are stuck on with cloves. This is the meat that is always served with scalloped potatoes and some (but never me) would say creamed corn is also traditional.
The hind leg is also used to make Italian prosciutto and Spanish Serrano, although flattening is part of that process so the cut doesn’t look much like a leg. This is cured meat (though a different kind of curing) so doesn’t need to be cooked. You’ll find them in the deli here where they are almost always cut very thin. Though, when I was in Spain I saw a whole Serrano ham from a butcher hanging in a friend’s kitchen wrapped in a towel (to keep the dust off). They lifted the towel and cut chunks from it when they wanted some.
There’s also gammon, a British method of treating a hind leg of a pig. It’s somewhere between America’s fresh ham and Canada’s pink ham. Sort of like bacon, it’s a more translucent pink so has to be cooked like raw. As for the name, gammon, it’s from old French, a gambon, gambe or leg. I expect it’s also why detectives in noir mysteries refer to babes with a great sets of gams.
For some reason ham is baked and raw is roasted. They both go in the oven at the the same temperature, but that’s the way it is.
People worry whether they are cooking raw pork enough. It needs 25 minutes a pound. Thirty minutes per pound according to old cookbooks or if you’re wary of the government’s inspection programs for eradicating trichinosis at commercial farms (there hasn’t been a case since 1977). Or maybe your pork is is not inspected because you grew it or your neighbour did.
Just make sure you cook it moist because it’s easy to dry out the premium cuts since pork isn’t marbled like beef. The fat is all on the outside (remember the campaign ‘the other white meat’?).
That’s enough of wandering through the food etymology pig pen. Time for a picnic.