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Ham for the holidays: A hard-to-find Southern Maryland delicacy with a fervent following

Mike’s Wholesale Bait Co. might be the last place families would expect to find the centerpiece for their holiday meal. But for a month each fall, the savory scent of hams boiling with greens and spices wafts through the air outside his two-story white barn in Gambrills.

Stuffed ham is seldom found outside of Southern Maryland, but it’s the dish that keeps Mike Baldea in business at Brandy Farms when fish bait is out of season. The Anne Arundel County farm is one of the few spots — if not the only spot — in Greater Baltimore delivering them to families from Northern Virginia to Baltimore, and from Harpers Ferry to the Eastern Shore. His team of three cooks begins preparing the hams in late October, cooking through Thanksgiving to make as many as 400 hams and meet the Christmas season demand.

The St. Mary’s County delicacy begins with a corned ham (brined in salt), which is trimmed and sliced to create pockets that are stuffed with a mixture of cabbage, kale, hot peppers, onions, celery and spices. The hams are traditionally boiled in cheesecloth and served cold. Many families incorporate them into holiday spreads alongside turkeys and side dishes.

Although its exact origins are lost, stuffed ham is a classic folk recipe that has been handed down through generations, said Joyce White, an Annapolis-based food historian.

“The recipe for it wasn’t actually written down and it was passed from one generation to the next,” she said. “With that comes variations, so we really don’t know from one generation to the next how that may have changed over time.”

Stuffed ham was not documented until the 20th century, White said, and it appears to combine British and African traditions. Southern Maryland-style stuffed hams bear resemblance to Lincolnshire stuffed chine, a British dish that packs herbs into a brined cut of pork neck. The hot peppers in stuffed ham, though, are not typical of the Anglo-American diet, but they were prevalent in Caribbean and African cuisine, suggesting the spice may have been incorporated by African-American slaves, White said. Theories vary, but slaves may have been given better cuts of meat during the holidays — stuffing them to expand the servings — or they could have cooked the hams for their owners.

Although stuffed ham is now a popular Christmas dish, White said it was probably first served for Easter. Animals were slaughtered in the fall, when meats were brined to preserve them, and the hams were stuffed with winter vegetables. Cabbage is the primary ingredient in the ham’s stuffing in the southern part of St. Mary’s County, while kale is the main ingredient in the county’s northern region.

At Brandy Farms, Baldea’s team uses a combination of cabbage, kale, spinach, celery, onions and hot red peppers, seasoned with red pepper flakes, mustard seed, celery seed, salt, black pepper and a secret ingredient.

“There is one ingredient that just I think sets it aside that everyone tastes and recognizes it and likes it, and it’s something that’s readily available to everybody but I don’t think anyone’s caught on to it,” Baldea said.

Baldea recalled eating the dish during childhood visits to family friends in St. Mary’s County.

“The ham was something I always loved,” he said. “My dad would take us down to St. Mary’s County to visit friends, and they would have one out on a Sunday afternoon.”

He remembers slicing off pieces and eating it on bread or a biscuit.

Baldea began tinkering with the recipe in the late 1980s, and he has been using the same recipe for nearly 30 years. The ham won Brandy Farms a blue ribbon at the St. Mary’s County Fair stuffed ham contest in the early 1990s — before Baldea brought his hams to market. His team placed in the top three spots each of the four years they entered the contest.

“No one else seemed to be consistent like that, so I was very proud of it,” Baldea said.

As Baldea was searching for ways to supplement his business during the winter, he turned to his love for cooking. He previously made stuffed hams as gifts, and he said the positive responses to his hams at the fair prompted him to add a commercial kitchen to his business and start selling them for the holidays.

This year, Brandy Farms hams are selling for $11.49 per pound. They are typically sold as half-hams, which average 10 to 12 pounds. Brandy Farms also offers four-pound pre-sliced packages. While the company can usually accommodate last-minute holiday orders, Baldea suggests ordering at least two weeks in advance.

Baldea’s customers come from primarily from the Washington, D.C., area, and fewer customers hail from Baltimore.

“It’s definitely a Southern Maryland thing, or people who have lived there and moved out,” Baldea said.

Jenna Cooley, a Fells Point resident whose family hails from St. Mary’s County, said stuffed ham is always on the table when her family gets together for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“I remember when I found out that no one else really eats it even anywhere in Maryland,” said Cooley, 26. “I was pretty surprised.”

After eating stuffed ham with holiday meals, her family usually has it the next morning on rolls for breakfast.

“Everyone in my family really loves it, but I definitely think part of that is tied to the nostalgia of eating it,” she said.

Northern Virginia resident Renee Crossman, 57, said Brandy Farms’ hams have generated fervor among diners at her holiday gatherings.

“We had almost fights breaking out for the last bits,” she said, adding the stuffed hams have converted some guests at her gatherings into ham eaters. “The taste alone … it’ll win you over.”

Holiday hosts can also order hams from vendors in Southern Maryland, such as WJ Dent & Sons in Tall Timbers or McKay’s grocery stores. And more adventurous home cooks can make their own.

Thom Winters, a 42-year-old Hamilton resident, began making stuffed ham a few years ago when he happened on the dish.

“Being a good Southern boy, there’s nothing that goes together quite as well as pork and greens,” Winters said.

The South Carolina transplant said he makes stuffed ham for gatherings during the weekend following Thanksgiving. This year, he’s buying a corned ham from Dudek’s Delicatessen and Butcher Shop in Essex, which sells whole and half corned hams for $3.19 per pound (typically with the bone in, but they can be deboned, owner Bob Dudek said).

Corned hams are also available in the Baltimore area at shops like J.W. Treuth & Sons in Catonsville, which sells whole hams for $2.69 per pound, and Manger Packing Corp. in West Baltimore — where Baldea sources his hams — at $2.29 per pound for boneless hams or $1.89 per pound for bone-in whole hams. Most butcher shops and meat markets require a week or two to process orders.

Information about the delicacy is sparse online, which can make the cooking process intimidating, Winters said. But his version, an amalgamation of recipes, has been worth it.

“Do it,” he said. “It’s so easy.”

After all, there’s more than one way to stuff a ham.

“The folk tradition in what your family does is what you do,” White said. “There is no one right way.”

smeehan@baltsun.com

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