The Nostalgia of Ham

The other day my husband and I were in the kitchen, baking some ham, boiling some rice and cooking up some spicy black beans and I suddenly thought, “This kitchen smells just like my grandmother’s.” I was immediately transported back in time forty years. They say that our sense of smell is closely linked to memories – maybe even more so than our other senses. Well, I can certainly attest to that.

So I stood there for a second, deeply breathing in the memories, and wondered exactly what was triggering scenes from my childhood. I quickly decided it had to be the HAM.

My grandmother was always cooking ham – not just to eat as a main entrée but to also use as flavoring. Little bits of pork were easily found in all her pots of beans; they were used to top salads ( not that we ate a lot of salad! ); leftover slices from last night’s dinner would find themselves sandwiched in between cathead biscuits for breakfast. And don’t forget those good juices from baking or the grease from frying up some slices – that could be used in cooking too!

And then there was the country ham. For those who aren’t familiar with this delicacy, country ham is a ham that has been both smoked and dry salt cured. Uncooked country hams need no refrigeration and as such the glorious smell can fill a whole house as it sits upon your kitchen counter just waiting for the weekend when it will garner your full attention.

That full attention includes soaking your ham for twenty-four to thirty-six hours to remove the outer layer of salt. And then you need to scrub off any surface mold that has accumulated in the curing process – which, by the way, is perfectly normal just like in fine aged cheese.

Not feeling the pioneer preparations? Trust me – it is worth the muscle. Or you could just buy one already cooked but then you’d miss out on all the fun. And the weeks worth of nostalgic aroma!

Which brings me back to the smell … the memories. I quickly surmised that there were probably a lot of cooking smells that reminded me of my grandmother because it always seemed like she was cooking or cleaning up after having done so. And the poor woman never even had a dishwasher so there was a lot of sink time involved after meals.

During my summertime visits, I became her dishwasher, spending a lot of time at the sink myself, looking out the kitchen window towards the swing in the side yard, just patiently waiting for me underneath the grand old sycamore tree.

I used to swing underneath that sycamore after I had washed  my hair – my grandmother’s idea of a hair dryer. But that’s a story for another time. Maybe I’ll write about it when I catch a whiff of Irish Spring soap or Breck shampoo.