Happy to Ham it Up

 

Families continue local tradition in homes, markets
Writer: Megan Johnson

Few regional dishes are as popular – and as polarizing – as the Southern Maryland stuffed ham. For many, it just wouldn’t be Christmas without this colorful dish taking pride of place on the family table. For others, its presence – redolent of kale, cabbage, and onion – is enough to inspire “Truth or Dare” battles at the kids’ table.
Locals know it, even if they haven’t tried it, and its history spans centuries. Maryland food historian Joyce White shares that stuffing meat goes back to medieval Europe, with the Lincolnshire Stuffed Chine – a cured pork neck or backbone, stuffed with simmered herbs – being an ancestor to the version brought to St. Mary’s County by early settlers.
But that dish wasn’t spicy, and stuffed ham must have heat. Spicy red peppers were not common in the English diet, leading to the dish’s “strong historical ties to Afro-Caribbean and British food cultures,” states chef Lynne Just in the Smithsonian’s “Cooking Up History” series.


Enslaved people are believed to have created the recipe by combining fresh greens from the garden and on-hand spices with their limited meat rations, boiling them together in a cloth bag.
“Once the plantation owner tasted the delicious blend of pork and greens, he realized the recipe worked well with the more desirable ham portion,” according to a historical account shared by stuffed ham proprietor WJ Dent & Sons. “The stuffed ham found its place on the plantation owner’s dining table.”
Today, Sandy Ondrejcak of Bryantown has been stuffing hams for decades. A self-described “transplant” with roots in Frederick, Md., Sandy loved the dish after it was introduced at a friend’s house. Knowing many hands make light work, Sandy and her sister, Stacey Wilson of Mechanicsville, host friends for annual get-togethers to share the workload each Thanksgiving. “I like that we do it together, and that we enjoy it as a family,” said Sandy.
It all starts with a corned ham, deboned with fat removed. Slits – or pockets – are cut throughout the meat. Spicy greens (the “stuffing”) are mixed in large buckets along an assembly line. “Everyone has a job,” Sandy said. “We have onion peelers and folks running food processors. Others are in charge of the spices, and remembering which batch of stuffing is the ‘hot’ one.”
No matter the role, your hands are getting dirty. “We’re all stuffing until our fingers are burning,” said Sandy. Gloves are an option, but often cumbersome. “We pack as much as we can in and around the outside, then wrap everything in cheesecloth for cooking.”
The crew now has it down to a science even if they are “cheating,” Sandy whispers, by using canned kale rather than fresh. “Ham-stuffing isn’t complicated, but it is time-consuming.”
Many ham lovers turn to their favorite shops instead. Regional grocer McKay’s prepares the dish for thousands of customers annually, a tradition that started largely in the 1980s.
 “Prior to that time, most families prepared their own recipe at home for the holidays,” said Thomas McKay, president of McKay’s Family Markets. “McKay’s has sold all the ingredients, including corned hams, since 1948. … Today, we sell nearly the same amount of fully prepared stuffed ham in our stores as unprepared ham.”
The McKay’s recipe was handed down by founders James and Marilyn McKay. “While the family recipe included some portions of fresh watercress, the recipe today has been carefully balanced to appeal to a broad spectrum of appetites, very similar to that often found at many local church dinners,” said Thomas.
With both ground and crushed red pepper, it’s on the “hot” side. Most folks can handle it, though. “McKay’s believes its fully prepared stuffed ham has just the right amount of spice even for the seasoned stuffed ham connoisseur,” he said, though “more crushed red pepper is always an option.”
It’s also a family tradition at WJ Dent & Sons in Tall Timbers. David Dent, son of the late William J. “Chief” Dent, now runs the business purchased by his family from John Sheaffer in 1978. The country store once prepared only four or five stuffed hams annually. “Now we cook 300 to 400 stuffed hams for the holiday season,” said David. At the St. Mary’s County Fair in September, they sold 130 stuffed hams in just four days.
The original recipe was shared by Sheaffer and Paul Morris, head butcher. “My brother Andy Dent took his inspiration from those two men and developed our family recipe,” said David. “We like to say our stuffed ham has a ‘bite’ to it. On a scale of 1 to 10, I would say it’s about a seven.” With notice, milder or spicier hams can also be prepared by request.
Before his passing in 2018, Andy was the primary ham-stuffer. He shared his technique, passion and knowledge of this labor-intensive process with coworkers. “Our staff has proudly and successfully carried on Andy’s traditions,” David shared.
WJ Dent & Sons has a loyal following of former county residents, including military personnel who fell in love with the dish before being transferred out of the region. “Corned hams … are a rare commodity outside of Southern Maryland, so it is not easy to cook your own when you move away,” said David. Today, WJ Dent & Sons has shipped stuffed ham to 49 states (Hawaii is next).
At Chaptico Market & Deli in Chaptico, their popular stuffed ham is prepared from a 130-year-old recipe passed down from owner Jodi Black’s great-great-grandmother to her father, Ronnie Tennyson, who in turn taught his daughter and son-in-law, co-owner Lucas Black. Longtime employees Susan Spach and Butch Bowling imparted their knowledge, too. “I am the granddaughter who now keeps the legacy going,” Jodi shared.
Offered since 1980, Chaptico Market’s stuffed ham is on the milder side. Platters and sandwiches draw regulars year-round, and the market is keeping it fresh: they’ve been known to serve it up in quiche and egg roll forms as well. The market also has a new food truck bringing stuffed ham sandwiches to local events.
Regardless of how you prefer (and serve) it, Southern Maryland Stuffed Ham is a tradition with strong roots – and a strong aroma. Many folks wouldn’t have it any other way. •


SOUTHERN MARYLAND STUFFED HAM
There are as many ways to tailor a stuffed ham recipe as there are crabs in the Chesapeake Bay! Maybe your own family recipe will be born.
Ingredients:
One 16- to 20-lb. corned ham, deboned
2 large heads of cabbage
2 lbs. fresh kale
3 lbs. onion
2 T. black pepper
3 T. salt
3 T. crushed red pepper
3 T. mustard seed
3 T. dry mustard
1 package cheesecloth

Preparation:
Preheat the oven to 400°. Trim excess fat from ham. Cut slits all over the ham, about 2-3 inches deep and wide.  To prepare the stuffing, rinse cabbage, kale and onions, then chop into small pieces (or use a food processor). Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Blanch cabbage and kale until just soft. Remove, drain, and let cool in a large bowl. Add onions and mix. Combine all spices, then add to vegetable mixture. Mix well.  To stuff your ham, generously fill the slits and large cavity with stuffing, then pack the outside with remaining mixture. Tie ham with string, wrap with cheesecloth, then tie again.
To boil: Place ham in a large pot. Bring water to a rolling boil. Reduce heat to a low boil and cook ham 20 minutes per pound, making sure water level is over the ham at all times. When finished, carefully remove ham and place directly in an ice bath. Cool ham until it reaches 140°, then refrigerate. Serve cold.
To bake: Cover the ham with aluminum foil and bake for five hours, or until internal temperature reaches 160°. Drain ham and cool overnight in the refrigerator. Serve cold.