Food & dining

Eating ham at Easter dates back to at least sixth-century Germany

EASTER

Sally Pasley Vargas for The Boston Globe

Just as sure as small children will hunt colored eggs and refrains of Peter Cottontail will lodge in your head, a ham will be front and center on most American tables this Easter.

While the rest of the world celebrates the arrival of spring with lamb, the pink, salty-sweet slices of cured pork, slathered in a sticky glaze, have become the tradition. Eating ham at Easter dates back to at least the sixth century in Germany, says Bruce Kraig, founder of Culinary Historians of Chicago and author of “Man Bites Dog.”

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Pigs, says Kraig, are ecologically forest-adapted animals. They thrived in Northern Europe, where farmers let pigs roam the abundant woodlands to forage for acorns and roots. Slaughtered and hung in the autumn, pigs were one of the few meats available to eat at the early spring festival. When Christianity spread northward, it merged with the pagan spring celebration of Eostre, the goddess of the rising dawn. A convenient uniting of traditions was born, with ham at the center of the feast. Early American settlers brought pigs from Northern Europe to the New World, where they were not native.

Today, after decades of spiral-cut and other sweet, pink, commodity hams, consumers are demanding humanely raised, all natural meat. A small niche of the American pork market is offering pasture-raised animals with no artificial color, hormones, or antibiotics added in the curing process. The nitrates in the meat necessary for preservation result from a natural salting process without extra additives.

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A traditional Easter ham is typically cured in brine or salt and smoked, which means it is fully cooked, and only needs to be reheated. The variations are many: whole, half, bone-in, semi-bone, or boneless. A leftover bone, which many cooks want, can be used for another meal, like a bean soup, but the meat may be harder to slice.

For boneless ham, count on ¼-pound per person; for a bone-in ham, allow pound per person. In both cases, round up the amount you buy.

You need extra for ham and cheese sandwiches the next day.

Sally Pasley Vargas can be reached at sally.p.vargas@gmail.com.
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