In the end, we’re all just “long pig,” says Chef Mike
Editor's note: Chef Mike is under the weather this week, so we are running one of our past favorite columns of his.
“What is a ham, anyway?” a voice asked me with a casual tone that belied the gravity of the question.
A bearded, 20-something stranger stood beside me in the grocery store meat aisle clutching a gold foil-wrapped ham and smiling the smile of a man gleefully unaware of the sad question that just spilled out of his mouth.
“What is a ham?” he repeated, “I’ve never seen a picture of one when it’s alive. What kind of animal is a ham?” His equally bearded shopping companion chimed in, “I think ham comes from either pigs or cows, it’s not its own animal...is it?”
My mind reeled at the very idea that this was a serious question, but the sincerity in their bright, round eyes made it clear they were looking for answers. “Pig.” I replied, “Ham typically comes from the butt end of a pig.”
“Oooh, sweet,” he replied before turning to his friend. “Let’s go get some pineapple, cherries and cook this bitch up!”
They thanked me and moved on while I stood motionless in the meat aisle, still in disbelief that there could actually be people walking the streets of Chattanooga without the most basic understanding of the glorious cured-meat wonder that is ham.
To help combat this scourge, I will briefly explain ham as a public service announcement—because it is unfair to the youth of our fair city to grow up without a basic understanding of cured meat.
Ham refers to a specific cut of pork that comes from the back thigh or haunch of a pig. It is usually dry-cured, like country ham, or wet-cured, like city ham, and then boiled or smoked. If you’re still having trouble picturing where ham comes from, here’s a mental picture to help. Imagine a pig twerking…yep, those are the hams.
The basic idea behind curing is that the salt used in the process preserves animal proteins by constraining microbial growth through dehydrating the flesh as well as the cells of the molds and bacteria that feed upon it, which unchecked would cause the meat to spoil. The meat is then hung to dry in fresh air or in some cases, smoke.
Smoke, in fact, is a very complex substance that includes carcinogens, which inhibit microbial growth; phenolics, which retard fat oxidation; and a collection of sugars, acids and particulates that give smoked meat the beautiful color and flavor that launched a thousand BBQ stands.
The climate conditions necessary for curing meat require that it is not so cold that the ham freezes, or so warm that the ham spoils. These requirements have produced distinct areas around the world celebrated for their ham.
Spanish Jamón ibérico, Italian prosciutto and Virginian country ham are all produced in what is known as the world’s Ham Belt—a global, geographic area bound by latitude that has historically produced the world’s best ham. Technology and climate control have made geographic factors less important for the production of ham, but these original ham Meccas are still considered to be the finest ham-producing regions today.
In the South, we traditionally enjoy baked ham during the holidays. No Christmas table would be complete without a glazed ham, dotted with cloves and topped with pineapple rings and maraschino cherries at the center.
It’s hard to say who first began to use pineapple with pork, but a traditional Fijian recipe for “long pig” may be the earliest mention of pineapple being used as a tenderizer and flavor enhancer for meat, and it makes great Christmas dinner table conversation.
In the islands of Fiji, where cannibalism was practiced, human flesh was known as “long pig.” Beautiful young girls were tenderized for days in pineapple juice and ginger, then rubbed with coconut oil, wrapped in kava and lotus leaves, garnished with more pineapple, and roasted all day in a fire pit.
While this practice predates by centuries the first known written recipe using pineapple with ham, it’s unlikely that the writers of the 1935 edition of “My Better Homes & Gardens Lifetime Cookbook” were thinking about cooking up little Sally from down the street when they were creating “Baked Ham with Pineapple Glaze.”
I sometimes think about those two guys I encountered in the meat aisle that day. I wonder if I should’ve taken them aside and given them the ham lecture their daddies obviously never did.
But I realize I can’t save everyone, so I’ll just fry up some ham steaks with pineapple rings and see if “Keep the River on Your Right” is on Netflix. Don’t judge me.
Longtime food writer and professional chef Mike McJunkin is a native Chattanoogan who has trained chefs, owned and operated restaurants. Join him on Facebook at facebook.com/SushiAndBiscuits