Southern Md.'s Stuffed Ham Tradition Honored with Award

 A WJ Dent stuffed ham, ready for slicing.

A WJ Dent stuffed ham, ready for slicing.

We all cherish our holiday mealtime traditions, and one tradition in St. Mary’s County is being honored with a statewide award.

Stuffed ham is the self-proclaimed “Official County Food” by the St. Mary’s County Tourism organization. It’s a ham stuffed with greens, onions and spices, served cold on holidays and at church dinners, county festivals and fairs year-round.

This weekend, the stuffed-ham-making practice will be honored by Maryland Traditions, the Maryland State Arts Council’s folklife program. WJ Dent & Sons, a deli in Tall Timbers, Maryland, that has been operating in different forms since 1927, will accept the honor.

 The southern Maryland stuffed ham tradition is supported by folks like, from left, Ray Raley, Matt Bowes, Samuel Pratt, Dan Raley, Carla Tomaszewski, Pat Bowes, and David Dent, pictured here at WJ Dent & Sons country store in Tall Timbers, St. Mary's County.  Photo: Edwin Remsberg Photographs

The southern Maryland stuffed ham tradition is supported by folks like, from left, Ray Raley, Matt Bowes, Samuel Pratt, Dan Raley, Carla Tomaszewski, Pat Bowes, and David Dent, pictured here at WJ Dent & Sons country store in Tall Timbers, St. Mary's County. Photo: Edwin Remsberg Photographs

There are different legends about how the stuffed ham was invented, but WJ Dent says it dates back to the early 17th century, where it is believed slaves working on local plantations created the recipe using the lesser cuts of the plantation owner’s butchered hog. Local lore says the slaves made the best of what they had by adding fresh vegetables from the garden, and boiling everything together in a cloth bag.

Making stuffed ham is a 16-hour, labor-intensive process that takes multiple cooks. First, the ham has to be cured, deboned, and trimmed of fat. Next, slits are cut in the ham, and an average ten pounds of stuffing are crammed inside. The ham is wrapped in cheesecloth, tied up with cord, and boiled— not baked. It’s finally cooled and sliced.

Maryland Traditions and the Maryland State Arts Council says this dish is so local, it varies based on which part of the county a particular ham came from:

“Locals can tell where a ham was prepared based on the proportions of the ingredients - more kale toward the northern county; more cabbage toward the southern.” 

The Maryland Traditions Heritage Awards are the evening of Saturday, December 1, on the campus of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) in Catonsville, Maryland. The ceremony will honor “stewards of our state’s living cultural traditions in a public ceremony and concert.”

Other local traditions being honored at the ceremony: The Sensational Royal Lights, a gospel quartet with roots in Dorchester County; and Curtis’ Coney Island Famous Weiners of Allegany County.

The evening will feature performances by the Sensational Royal Lights, as well as Meki’s Tamure, a Polynesian drumming and dance group based in Anne Arundel County. After the ceremony and concert, a lobby reception will feature St. Mary’s County bluegrass duo Cousins in Harmony.

The event is at 7:30 p.m., with doors opening at 7:00, at the Proscenium Theater in the Performing Arts and Humanities Building at UMBC. Reserve your free tickets through the UMBC box office.

-Meg Walburn Viviano

Bay Bulletin