How An Easter Ham Turned Into A Bittersweet Lesson On Letting Go

My family’s attempt to recreate my late uncle’s beloved Easter ham taught us that failure didn’t mean forgetting.

Easter Ham
Photo: Getty/Lew Robertson

My Uncle Jon was a big man with an even bigger smile, who liked to drink "sweet tea" (read: bourbon) when he cooked. He was born and raised a few blocks from the water, and his culinary know-how shined brightest when it came to Lowcountry coastal classics like red rice, shrimp and grits, and oyster pie. Conversely, the food memory that still lingers on my taste buds is a more universal one—the Easter ham.

On par with the Thanksgiving turkey, Uncle Jon's ham was the centerpiece of our Easter dinners. He spent decades perfecting his technique, which was a multi-day affair that began with procuring the ham—a whole ham. When the Harris Teeter butcher once politely informed him that they didn't sell those anymore, he quipped: "Has anyone told the pig?" The butcher, assuming he meant the grocery store and not the animal, responded: "They don't carry them either." Uncle Jon eventually tracked down a whole ham and delighted in retelling the story, which we're not entirely convinced he didn't embellish. (When telling tales, he often had a fisherman's relationship with the truth.)

Next, he painstakingly scored a precise checkerboard into the ham's fatty outer layer, embedding one clove in the center of each square. On Easter Sunday, he was up before sunrise to cook the ham. After church, the cloves were removed with special tweezers and he prepared the glaze—a slurry of brown sugar, yellow mustard, and crushed pineapple. The glazed ham went back into the oven before it was topped with pineapple rings and candied cherries, which meant he was frequently late to dinner. But no one minded as long as we were allowed to eat the crunchy, caramelized bits that fell off during carving.

When he passed away in early 2015, none of us could face the tradition, so we did the unthinkable and served a Honey Baked ham instead. The following year, my aunt and cousin attempted to recreate his recipe. If they succeeded, maybe it would be like having him back at the table. But the only whole ham they could find was a disfigured behemoth with a large fatty growth. And the light brown sugar they bought, left the already unsightly ham looking anemic. On our third go, my mother purchased crushed pineapple in syrup rather than juice, which resulted in a gooey mess.

Failure after failure taught us that even if we possessed his patience and followed his instructions to the letter, our ham would never taste like his. The secret ingredient would always be missing—him. So we acknowledged our loss, and decided on a work-around—a pre-cooked Honey Baked ham doctored with Uncle Jon's glaze—and recognized that letting go didn't mean forgetting.

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