Why Deviled Ham Was a Pantry Staple in Southern Homes

How this age-old savory spread became a quick-food favorite.

Deviled Ham Canapes
Photo: Mark Stout/Getty Images

Every self-respecting Southerner has eaten deviled ham at least once in their life. As a kid growing up in Georgia, deviled ham was as much a part of my lunchtime routine as I'm sure it was yours.

My mother would find creative ways to dress up the homestyle spread to serve on crackers, or sandwich it between two slices of white bread for a quick after-school meal. Personally, I haven't opened a can since high school, but more and more cookbooks and restaurants are featuring the creamy, pink potted meat in everything from bite-sized starters to delicious entrées. With Easter quickly approaching, it's time to revisit the South's most prominent pantry staple that is sure to put your leftover holiday ham to good use.

But first, how did this meaty spread come about, and why has it been standard fare in Southern kitchens for nearly 148 years?

Contrary to its name, deviled ham doesn't denote anything naughty or sinful. It's actually just plain old ground up ham packed in a round tin can with white paper wrapped around it. But deviled ham is no Spam or Treet meat. The devil's actually in the details, as spices such as hot sauce, peppers, turmeric, mustard, or cayenne pepper are blended into the meat for a little extra kick. The act of "deviling" was done to a variety of foods in the early 19th century, and we still do it today when preparing stuffed eggs with cayenne pepper or paprika sprinkled on top.

It was the manufacturers at The William Underwood Company who first started to embrace the deviling food trend, producing cans of meat with spicy seasoning in 1868. The red, menacing devil we've come to associate with Underwood's label on its canned goods was trademarked a couple of years later in 1870. Beyond aesthetics, Underwood's unique packaging allowed food to stay fresher longer, which led to the company becoming the top food manufacturer during the Civil War and a staple pantry item in many Southern homes.

Underwood's canned goods were supplied to both Union soldiers and Confederate troops because the salted meat could be easily preserved and transported from camp to camp. As we all know today, the war was costly. Food reached staggering prices, and families affected by the war had to adjust to inflation and food shortage, thus relying on more convenient and affordable ingredients. The men out in the field ate canned food, and their families left back home were forced to do the same. Farmers couldn't bring food to Southern cities due to Union blockades, and those in the rural South found it increasingly difficult to grow their own food. But, the Southerners of that time found a way to "pull themselves up by the bootstraps," living off foraged land and canned meat such as deviled ham. The longstanding brand has since transitioned to a pantry mainstay, thanks in large part to its long shelf life, portability, and versatility.

No longer eaten for survival, we can now enjoy deviled ham as a dip, spread on crackers, or puréed into soup. Make your very own deviled ham recipe using diced ham or leftover slices of your Easter ham to rival the canned version that was an instrumental food source during one of the bleakest times in our region's history.

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