By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2003 Gourmet Magazine
The only place we know to get St. Mary’s County stuffed ham year-round is St. Mary’s Landing, but on the December night we came for supper, they had none. Lynda Schmitz, the waitress, apologized: “Honey, I just sold the last five pounds to a customer.” We whined that we had driven all day from Connecticut to eat stuffed ham, and Schmitz listened sympathetically. We were not the first people ever to pitch a fit because the kitchen had run out. Then she reassured us that three large hams were being prepared that evening. Given the fact that stuffing, cooking, cooling, and cutting a St. Mary’s County ham is an all-day (or all-night) procedure, Schmitz suggested we eat crab cakes and spiced boiled shrimp, get a good night’s sleep, and return the next morning for platters of freshly sliced stuffed ham with fried mashed-potato cakes at breakfast.
“Are the hams ready?” we asked Peggy Schraff, of the waitstaff dawn patrol, as we eased into a well-worn upholstered booth opposite a wall-mounted TV monitor displaying Keno numbers and a countdown to the next game. It was 7 A.M., and we were the first customers to take seats in the restaurant, but barstools in the adjoining taproom were already occupied by ladies and gentlemen having shots and beers to start their day. Contrary to general principles of detecting good roadfood, St. Mary’s County stuffed ham is often found in places where drinking and gambling are featured attractions.
“You know, you don’t just heat and cut a stuffed ham!” Schraff announced with some hauteur, spotting us as tenderfeet who scarcely knew a city ham from its country cousin. We only had to inquire, and Schraff eagerly gave us the lowdown on a culinary subject that was obviously dear to her heart. “You must shock that ham, plunge it into ice to stop the cooking right away,” she declared. “Then you refrigerate it so you can serve it good and cool. Believe me, that’s the way you want it.” Stuffed ham is almost always served cool, though the menu says, “We’ll serve it warm if you ask.” Schraff explained to us that heat messes up the flavor of the dish; when it’s cool, you get a clear taste of sweet ham and the tonic greens it has been boiled with.
We have never seen stuffed ham anyplace other than southernmost Maryland between the Potomac and Patuxent rivers. It feels proper that this ancient, faraway part of the state (where Colonists settled in 1634) serves a dish not found elsewhere; St. Mary’s County is another world. Unconnected by bridges to Virginia or the Eastern Shore, it is on the way to nowhere—a spit of land defined by complicated coves and creeks where gulls and osprey glide overhead and the air smells of the sea.
Everybody knows about the Chesapeake Bay’s exemplary soft-shelled crabs, spiced boiled shrimp, and crab cakes, but few outsiders have ever heard of stuffed ham. “They are ham ignorant in Baltimore,” one chef bluntly stated. But to St. Mary’s County residents, stuffed ham is at the core of their culinary identity. It is a mainstay at church suppers and firemen’s balls from Thanksgiving into spring, and most restaurants serve it during the cool-weather months, at least intermittently. Its seasonal appearance dates back to the days of the autumn hog slaughter, when plantation slaves were given the head, which they stuffed with such late-crop produce as kale, turnip tops, wild watercress, collards, or mustard greens to make it more appealing. The harmony of pork and greens was so good that the concept went up the food status ladder from head to ham.
Most serious St. Mary’s County cooks have a family recipe for the dish, but it requires so much work that few people take the trouble to prepare it in their own kitchen. Restaurants and markets are accustomed to selling pounds to people who bring it home for supper. Schraff told us that when she worked at the estimable Hill’s Halfway House (whose owners, the Hill family, sold the property to the Wawa convenience store chain, then bought St. Mary’s Landing), there was a time they went through 300 pounds of stuffed ham in a day—most of it in multi pound takeout orders.
One of the best places to eat ham is The Roost Restaurant, in Lexington Park. Since the 1940s, The Roost has been a favorite dining spot of flyboys from the naval air base across the road. The stuffed ham here is mild; the greens’ spices only whisper. Chef Barbara Bankins explained to us that finely chopping 10 pounds of kale, cabbage, onions, and celery to stuff into a 25-pound ham is itself a huge amount of effort. She seasons the greens with mustard seeds and pepper and cuts slits deep in a corned ham so she can pack it all inside. The whole package, wrapped in cheesecloth, is boiled for five or six hours, after which it is cooled for about two hours. (Bankins doesn’t agree with Peggy Schraff’s directive to plunge it into ice water.) After it is refrigerated, it is ready to carve. Each thick slice has alternating strata of vivid pink and green.
Stuffed ham is reserved for holidays at The Roost, but you can get old ham there every day. Old ham is cured with plenty of black and red pepper and is sliced see-through thin, then piled high into hot buttered onion rolls. It’s not as sweet as the more familiar Virginia ham, and while its salt and pepper flavor is potent, there is a delicacy about these slices reminiscent of the most patrician prosciutto.
Stuffed ham is excellent picnic-table food. Curtis Shreve, who occasionally makes ham but always offers ambrosial open-pit-cooked pork at his Bear Creek Open Pit Bar-B-Q, in Callaway, explained that while some old-timers want their stuffing extra hot with a hail of red pepper and mustard seeds, he makes his on the mild side, showcasing the cabbage and sweet onions. Shreve also feels that stuffed ham owes at least some of its appeal to practicality. Local hunters certainly love it. An avid rifleman himself (the walls of his restaurant are decorated with dozens of his trophies), Shreve says that there is nothing quite as convenient as a stuffed-ham sandwich. “You put some ham between white bread with a little mustard and slide it in your pocket. You’re up in a tree and you get hungry—there you have it, with the ham and greens layered so nice in every slice.”
The Roost Restaurant(permanently closed)
21736 Great Mills Road
Lexington Park, MD
Bear Creek Open Pit Bar-B-Q (permanently closed)
21030 Point Lookout Road