Ham Words


Like so many things I eat, I wonder about the origin of the name. Ham words in this case. Old cookbooks and their meat cooking charts are a great source for digging deep. But then I got confused because, as it turns out, it depends on where you live and where the book was published.

My wondering started with a smoked pork picnic – or a picnic as it’s called in the pork business. Why is it called this? One theory (named before meat met Styrofoam and we gave up outdoor meals unless we’re sitting at a restaurant patio) is that was perfect for a picnic. Duh. The pork picnic is from the shoulder, the front. A lesser cut. 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 needn’t show off by serving a premium cut (though it’s always the right thing to show off your cooking prowess).

More ham words  

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. Some smoking only flavours the meat (like bacon) while some cooks it (pulled pork).

Curing is complicated so don’t try curing at home without first attending a class or having a mentor (the best being a backwoods relative – sometimes called a hillbilly – who smokes their own meat).

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. And 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).

Generally cookbooks have two cooking charts for the pig – one for raw and the other for ham (the pink one). You need to know what you have when it’s time to cook as raw pork takes 25-30 minutes a pound and ham only takes 10 minutes a pound.

So, what’s a fresh ham?

It’s a thing. I know because I kept seeing it in my cookbooks. But I couldn’t figure it out. Is it pink?  Ham is pink, right?

Well, it’s not pink. 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 pig’s premium cut – in any country and any treatment.

So a fresh ham and roast of pork are the same thing – 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.


What about the 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 so 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 the legs. Unless you’re Canadian, then ham is the term for all pink (cured) pork – at least according to the Laura Secord cookbook, a source that influenced me.

The hind leg

The hind leg  of the pig is the cut used for the revered Virginia or a Smithfield ham (Smithfield is in Virginia). Side note, and just to further confuse you, southern Americans 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 and not just Virginia. Wherever it’s done it’s hung for a long while – typically a year. Food people talk about this ham in hushed tones. They’re revered because there’s a particular way of creating one.

The ham of the Easter dinners of my upbringing is a cousin to the country ham. It was always decorated with canned pineapple rings and maraschino cherries stuck on with cloves. This is the meat that was always served with raisin sauce, scalloped potatoes, and cat barf (creamed corn) and brought in the spring. Not turkey and pumpkin pie.

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 anymore. This is cured meat (though a different kind of curing) so doesn’t need to be cooked. You’ll find them in the delis here where the meat is 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 the pig’s hind leg. 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 gambongambe or leg. I expect it’s also why detectives in noir mysteries refer to babes with a great sets of gams. 

Cooking it

For some inexplicable 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 or your neighbour grew the animal.

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’?).


I’m through wandering around in the food etymology pig pen. Time for a picnic.