To say this Easter holiday is unusual is a bit of an understatement. With stay-at-home orders firmly in place across the world, the traditions of community egg hunts, family gatherings, and church services are being foregone. Even the weather is adding to the surreal nature of this holiday: right now snow is falling against the dimly lit landscape outside my window. Isolation combined with wintry weather banishes all thoughts of wanting to wear an “Easter bonnet with all the frills upon it.” Sorry, Bing.
But while conditions beyond our control take away some traditions of Easter, a special meal full of traditional family favorites can still help us mark the holiday. For many people in the United States, ham is the centerpiece of Easter dinner. But how did this come to be when lamb is considered the traditional Easter entree in many other parts of the world? After all, lambs and sheep feature physically and figuratively in the Christian faith. Several factors contributed to this split in tradition, but before I cover these, let’s go over a few basics about ham.
Pork hams are produced from a pig’s leg (traditionally hind, but front is also an option) and can be cured, uncured, dry cured, wet cured, honey-cured, sugar-cured, or witch doctor-cured (just kidding on that last one). How the ham is named will depend on ingredients used, processing methods, and even where the ham is made: prosciutto di Parma must be made in Italy’s Parma region and Virginia ham must be made in Virginia (United States Department of Agriculture [USDA], 2012).
So those are essentially the basics: hams can vary in composition, and the name on the package should accurately reflect how it’s made, what’s in it, and where it’s from. Now, back to the topic at hand: Why will so many more American tables be graced with ham instead of lamb this Easter? As Bill Nye used to say, “Consider the following.”
- Changes in fashion and food As fabric alternatives to wool grew in popularity, and U.S. troops fed gag-inducing canned mutton returned home from World War II, demand for both of these sheep-sourced products has dropped since the mid-1940’s. This in turn led to a reduction in sheep raised in the U.S. and consumption of lam and mutton overall (Runyon, 2013).
- Price A quick peek at my local Aldi ad shows spiral-sliced half hams retailing at $0.95/lb. and fresh rack of lambs selling for $9.99/lb. Considering that lamb still needs to be cooked, the final price per pound will be even higher. In these trying times of sacrifice, this might mean the difference between filling Easter baskets with original Peeps and chocolate-dipped Peeps Delights.
- Regional practices Though pigs are not native to North America, ham became an early export of the American colonies, particularly Virginia (Graham, 2012). The climates found in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia mimic those of other areas around the world in the “Ham Belt” where, before refrigeration was invented, cool autumns and slightly cooler, dry winters provided perfect conditions for hams to cure outdoors (Lee, 2014). In the early to mid-1800’s in the U.S., large holiday meals were more popular in the southern region, and ham cured over the winter was a main feature for these meals. In the following century, as Easter feasts became more mainstream, large, cured hams that could travel well and be shared among many people became a staple for the Easter table (Lovelle, 2019).
In my personal opinion, I believe that hams are a popular choice because the belief in Jesus’ resurrection – commemorated on Easter – is usually accompanied by the belief in the removal of dietary restrictions found in the Old Testament, among them, “The pig is also unclean; although it has a divided hoof, it does not chew the cud. You are not to eat their meat or touch their carcasses” (Deuteronomy 14:8, NIV). I see the Easter as a chance to exercise the privilege to enjoy all the tasty creatures God created, though I haven’t gone so far as to enjoy hyrax or camel.
So whether you choose to enjoy thick slices of “city ham” cured in a solution of water, salt, curing agent, and other ingredients; wafer-thin slices of “country ham” rubbed with minimal ingredients and air-dried over a long period of time, or a cure-free fresh ham this holiday, know that you aren’t alone. Food binds us together culturally, and with technology, we can share pictures of our holiday meals with friends and family over Facebook, Instagram, or whatever else kids are using these days. So stay safe, wash your hands, and pass the ham.
Graham, P. (18 Dec. 2012). Dry curing Virginia-style ham. Virginia Cooperative Extension. Retrieved from https://www.pubs.ext.vt.edu/458/458-223/458-223.html.
Lee, P. (19 Sept. 2014). The history of ham. Heritage Foods. Retrieved from https://heritagefoods.com/blogs/news/the-history-of-ham.
Lovelle, S. (4 Apr. 2019). How Easter ham became a delicious tradition. Martha Stewart. Retrieved from https://www.marthastewart.com/1538183/how-easter-ham-became-traditional-easter-dinner.
Runyon, L. (8 Oct. 2013). The long, slow decline of the US sheep industry. Harvest Public Media. Retrieved from https://www.harvestpublicmedia.org/post/long-slow-decline-us-sheep-industry.
United States Department of Agriculture (May 2012). Ham and Food Safety [PDF]. Retrieved from https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/wcm/connect/d1df4c79-ad2b-4dd4-a802-ed78cd14409d/Ham_and_Food_Safety.pdf?MOD=AJPERES.