Baked ham makes the cut for many holiday tables, but this ubiquitous, relatively inexpensive and easy-to-prepare meat also shows up in humble soups, anchors quick Tuesday night dinners and reigns as a favored sandwich ingredient.
And it really wouldn't be hyperbole to say that ham helped launch modern civilization. Without the art of preserving food, ancient people could not have settled down and turned their energy toward building cities and social institutions.
The word ham derives from the Old English hamm and refers specifically to a cut of meat from the hog's hind legs. China takes credit for curing the first pork leg back in 4900 B.C. Enthusiasm for ham spread throughout ancient Europe with the Romans, who likely learned of the practice while trading with the Chinese. A surprisingly workable recipe for ham with figs survived from the second century when it commanded attention on ancient banquet tables. The Gauls produced precursors to the contemporary world's renowned Bayonne, Black Forest, and Westphalian hams.
Christopher Columbus carried eight pigs on board with him when he left Spain for the New World, but explorer Hernando de Soto's 13 pigs became the breeding stock for America's pork industry when he landed on the coast of Florida in 1539. Within just a few years, his passel of hogs grew to 700.
By the 17th century, most colonial farmers raised pigs. The long shelf-life of salt pork and bacon made both staples in early American kitchens. The expression "high on the hog" seems to have developed from the literal position of the ham on the upper half of the pig (as opposed to the belly, shanks, and trotters) and came to connote a luxurious lifestyle of dining on the best cuts of meat.
George A. Hormel & Company pioneered canned ham in America in 1926, then introduced Spam in 1937 as a luncheon meat. The designation country ham first appears in print in 1944, referring to a method of dry-curing and smoking developed in the rural regions of Virginia, Kentucky and other nearby states. The term now refers to this style of ham preservation rather than a specific location, though a Smithfield country ham, perhaps the best-known brand of American country ham, can come only from the area around Smithfield, Virginia.
In contrast, so-called city hams are wet-cured by being submerged in or injected with brine, then smoked. When you purchase a city ham, it's fully cooked, such as the spiral-cut hams popular at Easter. Country hams, though preserved, must be cleaned and cooked before you serve them. It's possible to purchase raw hams, usually marketed as "fresh," and cure and smoke or cook them at home. Without curing, a cooked fresh ham resembles a loin roast or chop more than the salty, smoky flavor of processed ham.