Written By David Shields
Originally Published in The Rice Paper Newsletter, Fall 2009
In 1837 the editor of the Tennessee Farmer declared that mutton ham was superior to pork. While his opinion seems not to have been sustained by southern culinary history, the pleasures of a cured ram or sheep’s leg were widely known in 19th-century America. Mutton Ham was a traditional English meat, described and lauded in the most popular late 18th and early 19th-century English cookbooks.
The first recipe published in an American periodical, an 1825 receipt published in the New England Farmer, opted in favor of smoking the leg for ten days with green hickory wood. Another school of preparation eschewed smoking but recommended that the ham be soaked and boiled before eating. In the south mutton ham came to be a feature of up-country, rather than coastal cookery, in large measure because the heat and humidity of the coastal south made sheep miserable and thwarted large-scale sheep-breeding.
Once cured, a ham could be shipped anywhere, and hence came to the Lowcountry and Tidewater table. While numbers of recipes survive for the dish, the most extensive comes from Mrs. Washington of North Carolina. With the fall-off in demand for mutton on American meat markets in the twentieth century, the mutton ham languished and has become a forgotten mainstay of the banquet table.
Leg of mutton weighing twelve pounds; one ounce of black pepper; a quarter of a pound of brown sugar; one ounce of saltpeter; one and a quarter pounds of salt.
The day after the sheep is killed, mix the sugar, pepper, and saltpeter, and rub thoroughly into the meat for fifteen minutes, until the outer part is thoroughly impregnated with the seasoning. Put the ham into a large earthenware vessel and cover it with the salt; let it remain thus for three weeks, turning it daily and basting it with the brine, adding to this, after the first week, a teacupful of vinegar. When the ham is removed from the pickle, wash with cold water, then with vinegar, and hang it up in a cool cellar for a week, at least, before it is used. Soak an hour in fair water before boiling.
Or, if you choose to smoke it for several days after it is corned, it can be chipped and eaten raw like dried beef.
Mrs. Washington, Unrivalled Cook-Book (New York: Harpers and Brothers, 1886), pp. 116-17.