“Breakfast at six-thirty. Skim milk, crusts, middlings, bits of doughnuts, wheat cakes with drops of maple syrup sticking to them, potato skins, leftover custard pudding with raisins, and bits of shredded wheat…
“Twelve o’clock – lunchtime. Middlings, warm water, apple parings, meat gravy, carrot scrapings, meat scraps, stale hominy, and the wrapper off a package of cheese…
“At four would come supper. Skim milk, provender, leftover sandwich from Lurvy’s lunchbox, prune skins, a morsel of this, a bit of that, fried potatoes, marmalade drippings, a little more of this, a little more of that, a piece of baked apple, a scrap of upsidedown cake.”
– E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web
In Charlotte’s Web, Wilbur the pig eludes death, not once, but twice – first, when a little girl named Fern prevents her father from killing him because he is the runt of the litter; then again when, like most spring pigs, he is slated to be killed in time to be the Christmas crown roast. There is always an inevitable thrill when you realize that your protagonist is put in real danger, which is only heightened if you think he might be eaten besides.
Pigs are wonderful;they furnish us with pork chops, crispy belly, and sausage. They are also noble creatures who are more intelligent, affectionate, and responsive than most dogs and three year old children. Most pigs, however, are rarely brought into the household. Wilbur’s misfortune is that he is pampered by the Averys from the start – nursed from a bottle, pushed in a doll carriage, and given a name. So what he hears about his fate taps into a fear that we have all had. Simply put, Wilbur has found out his own loving family have been conspiring to eat him, and his reaction is not unlike what it would be if you and I had found out the same thing.
E.B. White wrote Charlotte’s Web when he had a farm and had himself slaughtered quite a few animals; and Charlotte’s Web is the rarest of novels – an animal story written by a carnivore. From the very beginning, when he is brought into a kitchen that smells invitingly of coffee and bacon and wood smoke, Wilbur is both a hero and a BLT. And Wilbur is no vegetarian – he munches happily on the chicken noodle soup and meat scraps and meat gravy that furnishes his trough. Morbid child that I was, I scoured Wilbur’s slop trough for some evidence that he was a cannibal – but in this White anticipated me. There is no evidence in Charlotte’s Web of Wilbur ever chowing down on a ham sandwich.
Charlotte adores Wilbur but is unafraid to describe him as “crisp crunchy bacon, and tasty ham.” Charlotte successfully saves her friend Wilbur because she is a hunter who must kill in order to eat. Wilbur’s life could not have been rescued by a vegan. Wheat germ and lettuce doesn’t give you the guts, wit, and nerve that a life-long diet of blood provides.
White also resonates because his characters are so familiar, especially to a baby boomer child like me who grew up in Morningside Heights and Connecticut. Consider other books in which the hero is also a protein source – Beatrix Potter’s bunnies, for example, who bake pies, wear aprons, and clad their children in hand-sewn gingham pinafores. White’s characters are the kind you see giving seminars and driving Saabs to the supermarket – insecure intellectuals who concern themselves with love, money, marriage troubles, and a fear of death. Among them are the idealists (Wilbur), the stuffed shirts (the gander), the fools (the gander and Wilbur), the snobs (the lambs), and realist-cynics who are usually content to comment on the cruelty of the world but are rarely stirred to do anything about it (the old sheep and Templeton the rat.) In fact, in many ways the goings-on at Zuckerman’s farm remind me of staff meetings at a magazine. (White, of course, when he wasn’t fattening and slaughtering Wilburs in Maine, was a fixture at The New Yorker.) There are the self-important characters that pitch because they like to hear the sound of their own voice. The old sheep is a fine managing editor – seasoned, practical, middle aged, and a bit of a bully. “If Wilbur is killed,” she says, in an effort to enlist the rat’s Templeton’s help, “and his trough stands empty day after day, you’ll grow so thin we can look right through your stomach and see objects on the other side.” Templeton is the stringer – unapologetically greedy, yet resourceful and central to the operation. It is his duty to unearth ideas – albeit from the garbage; and he bites Wilbur on the tail when Wilbur faints away in front of a crowd. Without Templeton and his conniving – there is no story, and there is no success. Templeton is the quintessence of a reporter – clever, mobile, self-serving, and like much of the media, he is a rat. Yet he never gets credit. “I notice,” he says, “that’s it’s always me you come to when you’re in trouble. But I’ve never heard of anyone’s heart breaking on my account.” Poor Templeton. But the arrangements work out satisfactorily in the end, when Wilbur rewards him by letting him eat out of his trough first. In short, he gets no byline but a fat payoff.
While Wilbur may be a soulful little pork chop, if truth be told, he is a little annoying. He talks too much, shows off, throws tantrums and faints – in short, he behaves like an ordinary little boy whose brush with celebrity has invested him with a touch of Maria Callas. He is horrifically self-centered – although concerned about his own welfare, he seems pretty well inclined to shrug off the fate of his brothers and sisters. A schoolyard existentialist, he sighs, “I’m two months old and I’m already tired of living.” Wilbur is a child; and White – like many intelligent children’s book writers – doesn’t really like children. He prefers old souls. The qualities that White prizes above everything else are compassion, intelligence, responsibility, and literacy. And while Wilbur the pig can string together a sentence, do a back-flip, and question the logic of a lamb, the real brains behind this operation are a spider and a rat. In White’s stories, find the writer, and you’ll have your hero. Charlotte the spider comes into the world well after Wilbur the pig was born, but when they meet – Wilbur several months old to Charlotte’s few days, Wilbur is still a confused child, and Charlotte is already an adult.
It may be distasteful of me to devote so much time to pork after Charlotte’s Web, but I do have a fondness for all things pork, and as soon as I finished re-reading the book, I made a large pot of spaghetti alla carbonara, and then read Charlotte again sitting in bed while slurping on the eggy, smoky strands. I maintain that it is not impossible to love both Wilbur and bacon. I believe that both Fern Avery and Mr. White would agree.
“…crunchy bacon and tasty ham”
– Charlotte’s Web
My mother and her siblings grew up in Richmond Virginia, and at Christmas, their neighbor Mrs. Jenkins would present them with a large ham that her cousins in the mountains had cured and smoked from the spring pigs they had raised and killed themselves in winter. A Christmas ham was therefore not simply something that was purchased from the supermarket, but a product of a long-respected, annual ritual. As a result, the Christmases of my childhood also revolved around ham, which, although not from any pig slaughtered by a family member, still triggered an enzyme in my mother’s generation, causing them to drawl. For about ten years on the 25th of December, we were force-fed Smithfield ham that was mail-ordered at great expense.
“Dee-licious,” my mother and aunts would say.
“Yes,” we would echo dutifully, our teeth hacking away at the tough fibers. “It’s delicious.” Pause, as we would choke back a cough. “Maybe it’s a little salty?”
“You hush,” my oldest aunt would say, and then my mother and her sisters would chorus, “Yes, you hush. This is proper Virginia ham.” An expression of superiority would flit across their face. “What do you Yankee kids know? It’s just like the old days.”
HAM IN THE STYLE OF THE “OLD DAYS” (VERSION ONE)
• 1 Smithfield Farms catalogue
• 1 credit card
Order one ham, charge to credit card, and wait a week. When the ham comes, open box, peel back plastic wrap, butcher into shreds, and serve with a lot of water.
When I was about eleven years old the recipe changed. My oldest aunt Sha, who started the unfortunate Smithfield craze, can also be credited for this particular recipe, which incorporates Southern past, Yankee present, and Chinese heritage in its marinade of bourbon, apricot preserve, Vermont maple syrup, soy sauce, cloves, and ginger. There is also a nod to current supermarket convenience, namely a Reynolds oven bag. The recipe was also more economical than the Smithfield, because, in Sha’s words, you used “the absolute cheapest goddam water-packed ham you can find in the supermarket. Usually A & P gives me one for free.” Thanks to the new ham, I found myself no longer dreading the pink stuff. The skin and fat were my favorite part – drenched in the glaze and crisped in the oven – I tore it off and left the meat for everyone else. Nevertheless, the older generation reacted just the same as always to the new ham – and with the same freakish drawl.
“Maybe tomorrow we’ll make ham salad sandwiches,” they would say. “With Dukes. Does anyone have Duke’s mayonnaise? Remember how we’d have ham salad sandwiches wrapped up in parchment papers?”
Incidentally, my young cousin Kelley, who at nine had established herself as the family’s dreamy eyed aesthete, had resolved – in part because of Charlotte’s Web – to eat nothing that walked on four legs. Had she been subject to the Smithfield ham of time past, she might have kept her resolve. However, a couple of days whiffing the new ham was enough to make her realize that a pig – no matter how wise or sweet tempered – is simply irresistible when bathed in bourbon.
“MODERN DAY” HAM
Combine 3/4 cup bourbon, 1 cup of apricot preserve, ½ cup of maple syrup, ¼ cup soy sauce, and one two inch piece of ginger, finely grated, and stir until smooth. It should taste sweet, boozy, and a little spicy – like the ideal girl to bring home after a late night in a bar. Score the surface of a 6-8 pound ham (water-packed, preferably a complimentary holiday gift after you have spent more than 200 dollars at the A&P) in a diamond pattern, stud with cloves where the lines intersect, and then put the ham in a Reynolds Oven Bag, pour the bourbon apricot mixture over, and rub the mixture into the ham through the bag until it’s incorporated. Tie the bag, and set out in the garage or basement – since it is Christmas, it should be cool enough, although you should check for rodents and raccoons. Let marinate for at least two days and no longer than four, and then bake, bag and all, in a 375 degree oven for two hours. At this point, remove the ham from the oven, slash open the oven bag while shielding your eyes to protect them from the steam, and cover the ham in a glaze made from ½ cup bourbon, ¾ cup apricot preserve, 1/3 cup maple syrup, and ¼ cup of soy sauce. Raise the temperature in the oven to 425, and continue to bake for ½ hour-45 minutes, until the surface of the ham is crisp, shiny, and slightly burnt in parts.
While delicious cold, this ham is at its peak when served piping from the oven, when the clove and bourbon-perfumed fat is unctuous and translucent and can be spread on a piece of toast. I have also done this with a fresh picnic ham shoulder, adding salt and increasing the amount of soy sauce to a ½ cup, with very delicious results indeed.
A couple of years ago, I traveled down to Richmond and visited my family’s old neighbor Mrs. – pronounced “Miz” – Jenkins, and she made me her ham, which was nothing like the hundred dollar Smithfield hams of my Christmases yore. Miz Jenkins soaked her ham – which she still procured from her family in rural Halifax – in apple cider for four days and then literally sweated it for another day in a 200 degree oven. It was moist and slightly sweet. Miz Jenkins packed five pounds of it for me to take back to the rest of the family, and you can probably predict the reaction.
“Well,” I countered, “it’s actually what you had in the old days. And it’s nothing like that Smithfield stuff you used to make us eat.”
My aunts and mother looked bewildered. Sha said, “We always hated that Smithfield shit.”
HAM IN THE STYLE OF THE OLD DAYS (AUTHENTIC)
• One 6-8 pound ham, smoked by nephews and cousins in the mountains of Halifax Virginia
• 5-7 gallons of apple cider
For a minimum of four days, soak the ham in a gallon or so of cider, turning the ham at three hour intervals, and changing the cider at least once a day. Place ham in a 200 degree oven and bake for 24 hours, switching the oven on and off at one hour intervals.
Note: this is not a recipe for those who are shy of salmonella.
When eating ham, the conversation turns naturally to biscuits, and to Miz Jenkins’s biscuits in particular. She used to show up year round and leave a tray of ham and biscuits on the doorstep.
“Oh my god,” an aunt will say, “Miz Jenkins’ ham and biscuits.”
The rest of the siblings chorus, “Miz Jenkins’s biscuits.”
My mother adds, her voice slightly more aristocratic than the rest. “You know, I know the trick about getting Miz Jenkins’ biscuits. You must use White Lilly Flour, and you must use butter and shortening, otherwise they simply aren’t flaky the way we remember.”
Incidentally, Miz Jenkins uses all butter in her biscuits, so the biscuits that my mother cherishes so fondly in her memory crumble on the tongue rather than flake as she so steadfastly recalls. They taste nothing like my mother’s biscuits. I have to say that though both are delicious, I prefer my mother’s more because they are high and airy and delicate. I think they appeal to my Northern palate.
MIZ JENKINS’ BISCUITS
Combine two heaping cups of flour, one tsp of salt, and 1 ½ tsp of baking powder. Cut into the flour mixture one and a half sticks of softened butter. Mix in one cup of buttermilk until the it holds together, and then knead gently for two minutes, roll the dough out until is a ½ an inch thick, and cut with a cookie cutter, shot glass, or whatever else you have handy. Bake in a 450 degree oven for 12 minutes until golden brown.
These biscuits will be crumbly, buttery, and tend to fall apart when halved.
MY MOTHER’S BISCUITS:
Sift 3 cups white Lilly flour, ¾ tsp salt, 1/2 tsp of baking soda, and one tablespoon baking powder together and cut in the ½ cup of shortening and the ¼ cup butter, which, unlike Miz Jenkins’ recipe, should be extremely cold. Stir 1 1/4 cups of buttermilk into the flour and shortening vigorously, form into a dough ball, upend the dough onto a pastry board and knead the dough gently ten times. Roll the dough to 1/2 inch, prick the surface with a fork and cut them – I use shot glasses and my mother has special biscuit cutters that measure three inches across. Bake on a greased metal baking sheet for 10-12 minutes at 450 degrees. These are pale and flaky biscuits that render themselves into halves beautifully.
Every year after Christmas, every child in the family gets leftover ham wrapped in a twist of tin foil to take home. (The average age of our family’s “children” is now 26.) However, the part of the ham that we eyed most lasciviously is the ham bone with the scraps attached. The bone is first offered to the oldest child, Jay, who, since he is now watching his cholesterol, usually refuses and passes it down the line to the second oldest, his sister Gia. Gia almost always takes it, and then, because she is soft hearted and prone to pangs of guilt, drives to my place and offers me half. Since I am less munificent than my dear cousin Gia, the bone has always stopped with me.
We use the ham bone to make split pea soup, that staple which sustains our souls through the bluster of Northeastern Januarys. I’ve noticed that split pea soup is pretty much part of the diet in cold places – Germany, the UK, Canada, Scandanavia. In this country, it’s drafty, Ethan Frome/Nathaniel Hawthorne/Union soldier food; you can’t exactly imagine Scarlett tucking into a bowl under the magnolia trees. Split pea soup is also a thrifty soup. Should you find yourself with only ten dollars in the bank, it’s how you feed yourself for a week. It is yet another reason why January is split pea soup month for me, as I find myself often in that situation after Christmas shopping. For two more dollars you can throw in spinach for vitamins, or a couple of potatoes for heft. It is savory, filling, packed with protein and nutrition, keeps your intestines in working order, for some reason, makes your skin glow, and is one of the tastiest ways of losing weight. It is for this reason all of the children of our family make this soup, even though those younger than me have to resort to supermarket ham hocks. The following is the Chin children’s version of this Yankee concoction.
NEW YEARS SPLIT PEA SOUP
Chop and sauté one onion with 3 cloves of garlic, smashed, four stalks of celery, and three diced potatoes and four carrots, chopped, optional. Let the vegetables simmer until they are translucent. Add the ham hock from Christmas, plus leftover ham salvaged from the bone. Then add a pound of split peas that you have picked over and rinsed, eight cups of chicken stock, a couple sprigs of thyme, chopped, and simmer for 90 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the peas fall apart. Season generously with salt, fresh pepper, and a slug of sherry.
Note: my brother always sautées the vegetables with bacon and bacon fat. If you are feeling very tight, you can substitute water for some or all of the chicken soup. I do not add salt until the end because every time I have seasoned it from the beginning, my split peas have turned crunchy.