Read this cookbook: “Ham” by Damon Lee Fowler (University of North Carolina Press, $20)
By Wendell Brock
Savannah cookbook author Damon Fowler is a big old Southern ham who also happens to be a fine culinary historian. That makes him a perfect match for the University of North Carolina Press’s latest Savor the South dispatch, “Ham.”
Writing with scholarly erudition, well versed in the arcana of Southern culinary letters from the time of Martha Washington up to the present day, Fowler makes it clear how tender Southern people are when it comes to ham.
Of that autumn day on which he tasted a bite of pasture-raised pork, after years of eating bland, mass-produced hog, Fowler recalls being “enveloped in a sudden rush of memory so sharp and happy that I literally burst into tears before I could get control of myself.”
To be certain, this book is no ordinary ham sandwich.
After describing methods for baking, boiling, toasting and glazing a ham, and differentiating between methods of curing and preserving the meat, Fowler delivers 55 recipes ranging from simple ham and figs to his grandmother’s comforting ham dumplings to shrimp and ham jambalaya.
The author knows ham has an affinity for certain ingredients like eggs (think of the ham and cheese omelet) and techniques (think of the grilled cheese). In the latter department, he gives us five grilled sandwiches to choose from, no less, from a classic Cuban to a Monte Cristo.
There are ham salads, soups and gumbos, pasta and rice dishes, elegant dinner fare, and homespun dishes like grits casserole with ham and cheddar and ham tettrazini.
A classicist with a strong appreciation for the food of Italy, Fowler does not scavenge the contemporary landscape looking for fanciful creations from celebrity chefs. (Thank goodness.)
With an approach that’s more history based than hammy, Fowler lovingly evokes how it feels to stand in Thomas Jefferson’s smokehouse at Monticello and take a whiff. “More than a century after the last hams were hung to smoke in that chamber, the aroma of salt, smoke, and air-dried pork still permeates the rough masonry walls and red clay floor, filling the air with its earthy perfume.”
In Damon Fowler, we have a true connoisseur of the hindquarters of swine.
Wendell Brock is an Atlanta food and culture writer, frequent AJC contributor and winner of a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award for journalism. Follow him on Twitter (@MrBrock) and Instagram (@WendellDavidBrock).