My Dad and I stuffing a ham this year.

Stuffed Ham: A Southern Maryland Tradition

Thanksgiving Day has come and gone, and most of us are still enjoying the greatest part of the holiday: leftovers. Families across the nation have refrigerators full of turkey, mashed potatoes, and assorted casseroles.

Here in Southern Maryland, however, we have a holiday culinary tradition that is altogether unique: Stuffed Ham. Although cooking one takes a full day, the concept is simple enough: A corned ham is poked with holes and packed with greens – such as kale or cabbage – and spices – such as black pepper, red pepper, and celery seed. The result is a distinctively flavorful dish that seems to be found only in Southern Maryland.

Although the exact history of the dish is unclear, it seems to have originated here in St. Mary’s County two or three hundred years ago. An article in Chesapeake Bay Magazine explains some of the theories:

There are several local legends about the origins of this St. Mary’s original. One version is that slaves working on plantations in St. Mary’s used greens and onions from their gardens to add some flavor to the parts of the hog they were given. Others believe a cook for the Jesuit Priest at St. Inigoes Manor made the first stuffed ham as a special treat to celebrate Easter and the end of Lenten fasting. Another theory is that an English farmwife was the first to use cabbage, onions, and watercress to dress up her Easter ham.

As far I can tell, the Wathens of Southern Maryland have had no unique role in the history of stuffed ham, but stuffed ham is certainly part of our family history. It’s found at holiday dinners at every branch of my family tree, and I suspect that Wathens households have been preparing and sharing it for many generations.

In my own immediate family, stuffing and cooking a ham has itself become a tradition. My Dad and I get together every year, usually on the day before Thanksgiving, to make a stuffed ham using our own family recipe. Once the corned ham has been sufficiently filled with the mixture of kale, cabbage, and spices, it’s wrapped tightly in cheese cloth and placed in a large stock pot full of water. Once the water is brought to a boil, the ham cooks throughout the day. (These days we cook the ham outdoors, because cooking it indoors can leave your house and everything in it smelling for days.) While it cooks, we enjoy some libations – this year we had Wathen’s bourbon – a movie or two, and plenty of laughs.

I have it on good authorities – namely, Google and Rhonda Patton Wathen of MD to KY, Inc. – that stuffed ham didn’t leave the county as Southern Marylanders spread to Kentucky and then throughout the nation. If you’re from outside of the area and make your way back here to St. Mary’s County, then, be sure to look for this unique dish, which is undoubtedly part of our shared Wathen heritage.

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