For centuries, ham has been glazed with a little soda, but it’s only recently that ham has been boiled in soda. In the early 1970s, Pepsi introduced the first two-liter bottle, which was the first of its kind.
Boiling your ham in soda, whether it was the traditional Pepsi or Coca-Cola or the more unique Dr Pepper, cherry soda, or ginger ale must have been a natural progression from this practise. A recipe for “country ham” in Southern Living’s 1980 cookbook “Cooking Across the South” calls for the ham and four quarts of ginger ale as its only two ingredients.
As far as I can tell, cooking ham in sugary soda serves two purposes: imparting all those spicy-sweet flavours, and at the same time reducing the saltiness of the cured meat, which can be overpowering.
I’m going to cook a ham in root beer for Christmas this year because I want to try something new and surprise my father. Root beer’s sarsaparilla flavour imparts a woodsy mintiness to the meat, which goes particularly well with aromatics like bay leaves and shallots.
Most of the time, I can easily locate a pot large enough to cook a bone-in half-ham in soda when I return to Atlanta. As a child, I remember my mother’s mother-in-law giving her a bunch of stainless-steel caldrons as a wedding gift.
In my tiny Manhattan studio apartment, I discovered a great, hands-off way to infuse the pork with root beer’s caramel-dark flavours: pour root beer into the bottom of a large roasting pan, cover with foil, and bake at a low and slow temperature for several hours. It’s safe to say that the ham didn’t dry out at all in that steamy environment.
That root beer braising liquid can be used to make a glaze by reducing it in a separate skillet until thick and syrupy. Dijon mustard lends its body and spice, brown sugar adds molasses-rich sweetness, and rice vinegar adds the high note, the kind of flavour that floats on top like a finely tuned piccolo in an orchestra, to this glaze.
I treasure the days following Christmas more than Christmas itself. As soon as you put the hambone in the water with an onion, you’ll get an aromatic and flavorful broth. The holidays are a great time to reward yourself by making congee, which we Koreans call juk: A few egg yolks, some leftover rice and ham, and a little salt and pepper are all that’s needed to make it creamy. Ham and eggs prepared the long and laborious way will transform your outlook on life.
I took my family to Portland, Maine, for Christmas one year. In the absence of Dad’s Crosley, we played the same albums from our phones and stayed true to the ham-centric menu.
What the holidays mean to me is a time spent with my extended family around the kitchen table, listening to Louis Armstrong’s raspy vocals playing in the background, a powerful memory that I can conjure up with the flick of a record needle.
You can feel the weight of the world lift off your shoulders for a brief moment at any time of year, not just in December. A record player, which is a time machine, allows you to celebrate Christmas at any time of the year. A ham would be even better.