Southern Maryland rightly is best known for its outstanding crabs and other seafood, but the area has a remarkably good but lesser known regional specialty: stuffed ham. I’d heard about it, but I’d never tried any. Indeed, I don’t think I’d ever even seen it on a menu or in a market. Then we went to the Calvert County Fair and the scales dropped from my Big City eyes. Now I’m a big fan.
First, let me say that I love county fairs, especially the agricultural exhibits. Nancy and I went to the Calvert County Fair with Liza and Michael and the grandchildren, Ella and Lily. It was great fun to take them through the exhibits, the cows, the pigs, and lots of goats, including some appropriately adorable baby goats.
They liked the cows, and Ella’s negative attitude toward the pigs changed abruptly when we mentioned bacon. The girls also marveled at the prize vegetables (485 lb. pumpkin!), the cakes and pies, and the various children’s projects. Ella plans to enter projects when they reach the minimum age (6). Ella was thrilled to meet a real princess, tiara and all, from whom shed learned a lot about dairy products. The girls also went on carnival rides.
But back to the stuffed ham. I avoid the cutesie fair food — the fried atrocities (I once had a fried Snickers bar in Ireland. It tasted like fish and chips) — and lean toward local fare. My standard order, though, is an Italian sausage sandwich, and I dutifully had one here.
It was quite good, big, meaty, and well seasoned with a good amount of fennel seeds and pepper. It was well above the average in size and flavor, and the grilled vegetables were good, too. The bun was thicker than I like, but, over all, I give it a solid B, and an A+ by fair standards. It was a good lunch, and I didn’t plan to get anything else. Then I saw that one place offered a stuffed ham sandwich and, my brain stem taking over, I immediately ordered one. I opened it to see what it was like.
I took a bite. The ham — look at it — was bursting with flavor, and the stuffing gave it a deliciously spicy kick. It was great even though, as you can see, it was layered rather than stuffed. What great combination! How do they do it?
I’ll explain. They — the stuffers of hams — start by corning (salt-curing) the ham, something that people only seem to do in Southern Maryland and Eastern North Carolina around New Bern. Corning involves making deep incisions next to the bone from both ends of the ham, and packing the incisions and rubbing the exterior with salt. The curing takes a week or so, in contrast to country hams, which cure for months. After curing you flush out the salt and soak the ham in water overnight. The result is delicious, with a light saltiness (much, much lighter than country hams) and a flavor several notches above city ham. Why doesn’t everyone corn hams? Around New Bern, the locals serve the corned ham untrimmed of fat and without stuffing, as described ecstatically here in a New York Times article that seems to have evaded their pay wall. I need to try that, too. (The ham, not the evasion. Although … .)
Stuffing the corned ham involves chining, that is, removing the bone; making incisions a couple of inches deep in various parts of the ham; and then filling the various incisions and covering the ham with a mixture of chopped greens, cabbage, onions, and seasonings. The greens usually are kale, but the kale is beaten into submission by the seasoning that, at minimum, includes a lot of red and black pepper, and often mustard seeds, garlic, chives, and/or celery seeds, and you also trim the fat cap from the ham and cover the exterior with the stuffing, too.
Recipes within that framework vary widely, and you can find several recipes and much other information here. Don’t forget to save the ham bone for some proper greens (mustard, turnip, or collard) or for beans or soup or stew.
If that process sounds daunting, as it does to me, you can order a traditional stuffed ham from WJ Dent and Sons in Tall Timbers, Maryland, on the way to The Reluctant Navigator. You really should be going to The Reluctant Navigator for a dozen or so oysters anyway. (On our second trip, I discovered that their French fries are exceptional, as are their Bloody Marys.) If you just want a taste, you can have a go get a stuffed ham sandwich for only $8.50 at Chief’s, next door to WJ Dent, as I’ve already arranged to do.
And while you’re at it, click “follow” on our front page to receive blog posts in your email box. Or bookmark us and check in from time to time. If you’re planning a trip, you can “Search” the name of the destination city, state, or country for good restaurants (in Europe, often close to sites, like the Louvre or the Van Gogh Museum, that you’ll want to visit in any event). And stick around for news, all manner of recipes, and the occasional book or movie review and fine arts and architecture commentary. Comments, questions, and suggestions of places to eat or stories to cover are very welcome. And check out our Instagram page, johntannerbbq.