Holiday meals represent treasured moments when traditional culinary delights are shared with the ones we love. Ideally, time-honored food traditions such as these are sustained by each generation through the classic learning processes of observation and imitation. Ironically, while traditions by default are meant to preserve customs, they can also be wonderfully dynamic, reflecting evolving attitudes, tastes, and technological innovations. Southern Maryland Stuffed Ham with its unique, spicy-hot vegetable stuffing is a traditional Southern Maryland dish commonly served for Easter, Christmas, and Thanksgiving holidays. Generations of families kept the recipe alive through repetition long before it was formally written down on paper.
Bona fide Southern Maryland Stuffed Ham uses a corned (brined, but not smoked) deboned ham that has been slit in several places across the surface. The classic stuffing consists of a mixture of cabbage, kale, onions (often wild), wild watercress, celery, mustard seed, celery seed, salt, black pepper, and crushed red pepper, among other possibilities. Once the stuffing is tucked into the slits, the ham is securely wrapped in cheesecloth and boiled for several hours.
As long as these key aspects of the recipe are maintained, a certain amount of variation may be applied. For instance, proportions of the stuffing ingredients can vary; folklore proclaims that people from northern parts of St. Mary’s County prefer more kale while people further south prefer more cabbage; personal preference also plays an important part, especially regarding the amount of spicy red pepper used. Additionally, some folks prefer to pre-cook the vegetable stuffing, while others do not. Finally, the ham is traditionally served in cold slices to make into sandwiches, though some like to serve it as a side dish as in the case of Thanksgiving where it is served alongside turkey.
Like all folk traditions, the origins of this dish are impossible to verify. Maryland’s seventeenth-century British settlers brought with them a penchant for stuffed meats, but enslaved Marylanders may have actually developed the dish. According to the c.1983 cookbook, 300 Years of Black Cooking in St. Mary’s County, MD, enslaved workers were sometimes given jowls (the lower jawbones of hogs) on special occasions. Jowls contained relatively small amounts of meat. To increase the number of servings per jowl, they were stuffed with cheap vegetables grown in slave gardens, including hot spicy peppers (the inclusion of which suggests it has Afro-Caribbean origins). Another theory bolstering the claim that the dish has African roots is the belief that it was created by an enslaved cook from St. Inigoes, a small settlement at the southern tip of St. Mary’s County.
If you want to keep this Maryland food tradition alive by serving it this Thanksgiving but don’t have the time or inclination to make a traditional Southern Maryland Stuffed Ham from scratch, let someone else do all the hard work by placing an order for pick up and/or mail delivery from one of the following Maryland businesses:
Chaptico Market & Deli in Chaptico, MD
Murphy’s Town & Country Market in Avenue, MD
W.J. Dent & Sons in Tall Timbers, MD
Brandy Farms in Gambrills, MD
The Ugly Pig in Annapolis, MD
Lead Photo: Joyce White