Friday, October 05, 2007

The Language of Ham.

Today, October 5th

Not many of us, I venture, cure our own hams today. Should you want to know a prize-winning method, here is one from the Scientific American magazine on this day in 1850:

Mr. Nathan White, of Montgomery county, Maryland, gives the following as the recipe by which the prize ham at the late Fair was cured:
The pork should be perfectly cold before being cut up. The hams should be salted with bloom salt, with a portion of red pepper, and about a gill of molasses to each ham. Let them remain in salt five weeks; then hang them up, and smoke with hickory wood for five or six weeks. About the first of April take them down, and wet them with cold water, and let them be well rubbed with unleached ashes. Let them remain in bulk for several days, and then hang them in the loft again for use.

I have always been a bit confused about pork terminology. What is the difference between ham and gammon and bacon anyway? And what about the old word “flitch”, where does it come in? I started, as I often do, with the OED. I ended with as much uncertainty as I started with. Many centuries and much regional variation have wreaked their havoc on whatever the original differences and uncertainties may have been. About the only clear thing to emerge from my wanderings in etymology was that those who consider the difference being that gammon is the raw version of cured pork and ham the cooked version are in the minority.

For what they are worth, here are some of my random gleanings: you may be able to add some ideas, and together we may obtain clarity.

Flitch: This seems to be the oldest word. The OED is not confident of its origins (which seems to be a good sign of great antiquity), but dates its first surviving recorded use to the year 700. The venerable dictionary gives its definition as “the side of an animal, now only of a hog, salted and cured; a ‘side’ of bacon.”

Ham: According to the OED is probably descended from an old Teutonic word for “crooked” and originally referred to the bend of the knee, and by extension then to thigh and buttock. Its use dates from about the year 1000. It now usually refers to “ the hind leg of the pig, from above the hock, which is separated from the carcass and salted and dried separately. It is sometimes also smoked.”

Bacon: This refers to “the back and sides of a pig”, is from old Teutonic or old Dutch, and is recorded in the year 1330. “Back” and “Bacon” do have a certain similar ring to them, do they not? Nowadays it tends to refer to the meat that “comes from the side of a pig that has been cured by salting in a single piece.

Gammon: appears to originate from Old French (think of jambe, meaning leg), suggesting it may be a legacy from that Norman invasion in 1066 which left a permanent mark on so many British food words – although the OED records it as late as 1486. In modern usage it most usually refers to “the same joint as ham, but is left attached to the animal during bacon curing, the front legs treated in the same way are also known as gammon.”

We have hardly scratched the surface of ham language – there is the issue of your breakfast slices or rashers or slabs or strips or collops. There is a discussion of the curing (wet or dry) and smoking (or not) of the pig or pieces of pig too, and what about cooked ham vs raw ham? And Westphalian or York or Prosciutto or Pancetta and Jamon Ibérico? Will someone please write the definitive book on Ham?

Perhaps tomorrow, time permitting (and I need and excuse to procrastinate on some real writing), I will give you a few more of my random comments on the topic, but until then, I leave you with this delightful-sounding take on French toast.

Cut off the ends of a stale French brick, and lard the middle of it with streaked bacon, then, with a very sharp knife, cut the loaf in slices, about a quarter of an inch thick, dip them in eggs, and fry gently in a very hot pan till of a good colour; serve with a little clear sauce and a little vinegar and pepper.
[The Illustrated London Cookery Book; Frederick Bishop, 1852]

Monday’s Story …

An accidental oven.

Quotation for the Day ...

A couple of flitches of bacon are worth fifty thousand Methodist sermons and religious tracts. They are great softeners of temper and promoters of domestic harmony. William Cobbett (1821)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The slang expressions associated with these parts of the pig are fun, too - "bring home the bacon" (money); "ham actor" (overeffusive); "gammon and spinach" (nonsense).

Naturally my own favorite among these is gammon and spinach. :)