Scanning Around With Gene: Hamming it Up this Easter Dinner
Despite the fact that nearly one third of the world will not eat pork for religious reasons, and many (like myself) choose not to for other reasons (like because pigs are so cute), the most-popular dish on Easter tables this year will undoubtedly be ham. Ham and Easter have gone together for a long time — some say back to Pagan rituals before there was an Easter. Pigs bring good luck, it is said, so to assure a productive spring we slaughter and eat them.
But before we go deeply into Easter ham, it should be noted that once you remove the religious imagery, Easter is visually about many other animals. Bunnies, baby chicks, little lambs, and other barnyard animals are often part of the Easter parade, though you rarely see pigs in Easter visuals. I can’t explain this as people are known to eat rabbit and lamb for Easter dinner, and certainly some eat chicken, too, so it’s not about trying to disassociate what’s on the dinner table from what’s on the greeting cards and in the candy baskets.
Figure 1: Easter is associated with many animals, most notably bunnies, baby chicks, and lambs. But aside from their role on the dinner table, you don’t see a lot of pigs in Easter imagery.
Figure 2: The images in Figures 1 and 2 are taken mostly from turn-of-the-century postcards. It just doesn’t seem right talking about Easter without a few images of colored eggs and bunnies. But now, on to the ham.
Ham, Ham, Ham, Ham
According to the National Pork Board, 66% of Americans eat ham for Easter, which in terms of holiday meat choice puts it slightly behind Christmas (70%) but ahead of Thanksgiving (30%), when turkey rules the roost. Despite this preponderance of holiday pork, more than half of people buying pork say they don’t know how to choose a good ham, so brand awareness and confidence in your butcher are especially important for this holiday meal.
Figure 3: Ham graces the most sophisticated dinner tables. This series includes a 1930s ad from the Morrel company (top); a suggested ham-themed table arrangement from a 1962 article in Family Circle Magazine (middle); and a 1962 image from Swift’s Premium Hams (bottom).
A “ham” is technically the thigh and buttock of any animal, not just that of pigs. But we’ve come to associate the term with pork, and mostly with the process of “curing,” as opposed to simply cooking.
Curing is a process whereby sugar or brine or some combination of chemicals is injected or rubbed on the meat, which is then aged. These variations in the process are why we have so many varieties of ham, and probably one of the reasons more than 50% of people say they have trouble selecting a ham.
Figure 4: All animals technically have “hams,” but in the United States we use the term almost exclusively for pork. Top, a 1952 illustration from the National Live Stock and Meat Board; middle, a 1925 label for Porter’s cured Virginia Ham; and bottom, the ham you can cut with a fork, from Wilson circa 1937.
The Other Pink Meat
Based purely on Easter hams, I can’t figure out how anyone would say that pork is “the other white meat.” Nothing could be more colorful than a chemical-injected, color-infused canned ham from the 1960s. Add to that the rather questionable practice of coating ham with grenadine syrup, cloves, fruit cocktail, pineapple, or other sugary items, and you tend to end up with somewhat unnatural food colors. This may be why ham is so popular at Easter-it’s one way to make a dinner that matches the eggs!
Figure 5: Hardly the “other white eat,” ham is often very colorful, as shown here. Top, a 1957 image of ham with apricots from the Family Circle Meat Cookbook; middle, a 1950s illustration from the Continental Can Company; and bottom, a 1964 photo from Good Housekeeping magazine article titled “Look what you can do with fruit cocktail!”
Pity the Pig
I won’t get on a soapbox about eating meat since that would be hypocritical. But pigs really are smarter than dogs. According to many studies, pigs exhibit the intelligence of a typical three-year-old child, are easier to train than almost any other animal, and have a highly structured social order. Plus, they are much cuter than cows or chickens.
According to the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, pigs are routinely abused in the food-processing process, and most rarely see life outside of the cramped quarters of pig mills. Of all the meats you can eliminate, it seems that pork may be the best first choice.
I never really liked the taste of ham, and I bet that I’m not alone. Ham is so often cooked with strong spices, fruit, sugar, or other additives that it almost seems that the goal is to disguise the real taste. Of course, this may be because the classic “canned ham” is so processed and pumped full of chemicals that it barely resembles anything natural.
Figure 6: Nobody wants a ho-hum ham (top), so why not add a coating of gelatin and Best Food Mayonnaise (middle), or French’s mustard (bottom)? Many ads for ham include recipes that disguise the taste.
If it Ain’t Wham…
There’s something about ham that screams out for a clever advertising slogan. In the movie “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House,” Cary Grant is an advertising executive who, along with his wife (played by Myrna Loy), decides to build a house in the country, oblivious to the pitfalls of such an endeavor. It’s a great movie on its own merits, but all the better because throughout the movie Grant is trying to come up with a new ad slogan for Wham Ham.
I won’t spoil the punch line by revealing the final result, but needless to say that nearly every word that rhymes with ham is covered, and there are many. And of course Dr. Seuss gave us an entire book of dialog that rhymes with ham (I am, I am).
Figure 7: Ham isn’t just a meat, it’s a topic of conversation! Top, a 1937 package of Armor ham, “the ham that am”; middle, the heading for a newspaper column giving advice on in 1943; and bottom, the mellow richness of Swift’s brown-sugar-cured ham as advertised in the early 1950s.
This Easter we won’t be eating ham at my house. More than likely we’ll get a pizza or have some pasta or something very ordinary. But each year when Easter comes around, I do think of ham and can just about smell it cooking.
Perhaps it’s the unique color, perhaps the big can that I got to open as a kid (when they still had the little keys on the bottom), or maybe just the fact that ham and candy always arrived on the same day. Regardless, I celebrate the image of ham and its uniquely American presentation as a decorative, anything-but-ordinary holiday food.
Figure 8: Always festive, ham is perfect for any special occasion. From the top, a 1952 ad for Swift’s Premium Ham and another showing biscuits shaped as chicks; an apricot-decorated ham dish from Workbasket magazine in 1975; a Family Circle magazine spread from 1964 on the perfect Easter table, a festive Christmas ham in 1943 from Swift’s Meats, and a wedding/ham illustration from Ladies’ Home Journal in 1937.
Figure 9: “Leftover” ham images. From top, apricots ‘N’ ham from a 1964 Family Circle magazine article, cranberries ‘N’ ham from a 1962 Ocean Spray ad, raisins ‘N’ ham from a 1962 Sun Maid ad, family ‘N’ ham as shown in a 1972 ad for Rath, pimento-rolled firecrackers ‘N’ ham from a 1947 Swift’s ad, and patriotism ‘N’ ham from a 1973 Hormel ad.