In the 1930s, Harry J. Hoenselaar was just another ham salesman in Detroit trying to find an edge.
He spent his days handing out samples of honey-glazed ham and teaching drugstore clerks how to slice it for sandwiches. Although he was a master at knifing ham from the bone, he knew there had to be a better way.
His family, which still runs the Honey Baked Ham Company he founded in 1957, says the answer came to him in a dream. With a tire jack, a pie tin, a washing machine motor and a knife, he fashioned the world’s first spiral ham slicer — a contraption that would become one of the world’s great ham innovations.
If an aged country ham is like jazz, funky and improvised, a spiral-cut is the pop music of the ham world — sweet, approachable and easy to eat. Even though ham snobs may look down on it, it’s a rare critic who won’t grab a slice of the tender, pale pink meat given the chance.
The spiral ham’s natural habitat is the buffet table, whether for holidays like Easter or other life events like graduations and funerals, where the pre-cut meat slides effortlessly onto a plate. As spiral-ham marketers like to say: It virtually serves itself!
Marcie Cohen Ferris, the food scholar whose books include “The Edible South: The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region,” was introduced to the cultural significance of the spiral-cut ham after her brother-in-law died and the family gathered at their farm outside Vicksburg, Miss.
“There was a continuous drop-off of spiral hams,” she recalled. “The delivery guy would pull up, hand us a spiral ham, get back in the truck, drive back into town, grab another spiral ham and do the whole thing over again.”
She was in charge of recording the food gifts in a little notebook. “All I did that day was write, ‘Spiral ham from so-and-so.’”
For those who need a little ham refresher course, a fresh ham is an uncooked primal cut of pork from the rear leg of the animal. Take that cut, rub it in salt and maybe some spice, smoke it over wood and hang it for several months to age and you’ve got country ham. Consider it America’s prosciutto.
That same raw ham, soaked in or injected with brine, spice, sugar and curing agents and perhaps smoked a little creates city ham, the preferred ham for the spiral machine.
Making a city ham is a speedy process. “There’s a pig on Monday, and it’s in the store on Friday,” said Sam Edwards III, who is rebuilding his family’s Edwards Virginia Smokehouse, which burned to the ground in 2016. Other smokehouses have lent a hand, and his bone-in, spiral-cut hams are selling almost as well as the country hams the family is known for.
Spiral-cut hams comprise about 34 percent of all the ham sold in the United States, said Kevin Waetke, a vice president of the National Pork Board.
Shoppers spent about 2 percent more on spiral hams in 2018 than they did in 2017. But they were actually buying about 2 percent less ham. Prices went up, Mr. Waetke said, because America has been sending a lot of hams to Mexico and Canada, so there are fewer for the domestic market.
Still, as cooks have come to care more about the provenance of their pork, they have been willing to spend more on spiral-cut hams. And some producers of higher-quality, boutique hams realize that there is no shame in sending them out already sliced.
This year for the first time, White Oak Pastures in southern Georgia is selling spiral-cut hams from 450 of its Berkshire hogs. The animals are raised on pasture accredited by the Savory Institute, which is dedicated to regenerating grasslands. The hams are .60 per pound. (For comparison, Costco’s Kirkland brand hickory-smoked, spiral-cut ham was on sale last week for .99 per pound. A whole or half Honey Baked Ham sells for around .40 per pound.)
“Having it spiralized was not even a question,” said Jenni Harris, whose family owns White Oak Pastures and who is a dedicated fan of the genre. “I can’t think about a ham that I have ever had that was not spiralized.”
If the way a pig was raised can affect its quality, so can the way it was processed. City hams can take on water weight from the brine, and some processors inject extra brine or even water into their hams to improve profit margins.
It’s important to read labels, because brine (or water) is often injected into the ham and can impact the taste and texture. Top of the line are products simply labeled “ham,” and must be at least 20.5 percent protein by weight. Hams marked “with natural juices” are a good bet, too. That means 7 to 9 percent in additional water has been added. Most supermarket hams are labeled “ham with water added,” which means that the ham has up to 10 percent extra water. Something labeled “ham and water product” can have any amount of water.
Hams with water added can turn spongy, and don’t do well on a spiralizing machine, said R.B. Klinkenberg, the chief operating officer of Harrington’s of Vermont.
The company, founded in 1915, bought its first spiralizing machine in the 1980s, after the second patent on Mr. Hoenselaar’s original machine expired.
The spiral ham gold rush was on. Harrington’s sent a man with a ham to a spiralizing-machine manufacturer in Detroit to investigate the technology. He came back convinced that the company should buy one. But he also had a piece of advice, Mr. Klinkenberg said: If the ham didn’t have a sweet glaze, it wouldn’t be popular.
The company demurred, thinking that a glaze would interfere with its signature flavor, which came from smoking the hams over a blend of chopped corncobs and maple sawdust.
“He was right,” Mr. Klinkenberg said. “They didn’t sell.”
A method to coat the hams with a maple-sugar glaze was quickly concocted, and the next year they took off.
Although the marriage of ham and sugar goes back more than 100 years in America, trying to pinpoint its origins is a challenge that people who collect cookbooks were happy to take on for this article.
Celia Sack, who owns the cookbook store Omnivore Books in San Francisco, found a recipe for ham cured with molasses in the 1879 edition of “Housekeeping in Old Virginia.” Christopher Kimball, founder of the food media company Milk Street, offered a recipe from the 1890 edition of “The Delmonico Cook Book” that featured a scored ham sprinkled with powdered sugar and finished in a slow oven.
By the 1940s, sugar and ham were so intimately connected that an edition of “The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book” included a recipe for frosted ham in which cold boiled ham was coated in royal icing.
Pineapple, too, plays a supporting role in the story of America’s love affair with sweetened ham. The fruit landed on ham as a direct result of marketing efforts by Dole and other companies, which in the early 20th century began urging cooks to use canned pineapple in all sorts of dishes, said Laura Shapiro, a journalist and culinary historian.
By 1931, Irma Rombauer’s first “Joy of Cooking” had a recipe for garnishing ham with pineapple and maraschino cherries.
“Anybody who hadn’t heard of it by that time would have gotten right on board,” Ms. Shapiro said. “But even without pineapple, the general rule of making ham as sweet as possible seems to be classically American.”
Some ham makers, like those at White Oak Pastures, don’t use a glaze at all, believing that customers want as little added to the meat as possible. Others, like Edwards Virginia Smokehouse, send along a thick packet of sugar, spices and honey powder with each ham. Cooks can mix it with water or juice and paint it over the top of a warmed ham, then send it back into a very hot oven to set the glaze.
Companies like Honey Baked Ham and Nueske’s in Wisconsin hand-glaze every spiral-cut ham with a blowtorch. For most spiral ham fans, the glaze is essential.
“You need that little bit of sweetness with the saltiness,” said Libby Lord, who was spending her lunch break from her job at an insurance company eating ham on a croissant at the Honey Baked Ham store not far from the company’s headquarters in Alpharetta, Ga., a suburb about 30 miles north of Atlanta.
In the back of the store, the master glazer Juan Monterrey was loading whole hams onto a slicer. Most of the company’s hams come from pigs grown in the Ohio Valley, bred to have a specific amount of marbling. The hams are smoked over hardwood chips for 24 hours, then shipped whole to each store.
The company has 417 stores, from Southern California to New Hampshire. The busiest is in a suburb of Birmingham, Ala.
Mr. Hoenselaar, the father of spiral-cut ham, bought the Detroit honey-baked ham store where he once worked from the owner’s widow in 1957. Later, he divided its national territory into four parts and gave each one to a daughter. After decades of familial wrangling and consolidation, the entire operation landed in the lap of Linda van Rees, a granddaughter, who moved the company headquarters to Alpharetta in 2015.
Here at the flagship store, Mr. Monterrey loaded each sliced ham onto a small metal stand, fired up a blowtorch and then sprinkled on layers of sugar laced with a clove-scented spice mix, melting it into what would become a crunch crust once it cooled.
The hams are loosely wrapped in a heavy foil that a clerk can easily pull back to allow a customer to inspect a ham before buying it.
“It’s a lot like picking out your own Christmas tree,” said Jo Ann Herold, the company’s chief marketing officer.
Although plenty of people warm spiral-sliced hams, that can lead to the dryness that detractors of spiral ham cite as its worst trait. Ms. Herold says the best way to serve it is to let the ham come to room temperature, then use a butter knife or even a plastic knife to slice around the small center bone.
Then, use the knife to follow the natural lines of the muscle to create even more manageable slices.
“The point is to make it effortless,” she said. “We want the ham to be the one part of the occasion you don’t have to worry about.”
Guide: How to Cook Ham
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