Back to Ham

A member of the QNation scolded me because I was not on the ball and chatting with you all. I apologize, but work has gotten out of hand and thus, the non-paying work slips off the desk. I will attempt to be more sympathetic to your needs, and even if its not much, say hi with a paragraph and or even just post a hint of what is on the drawing board so you know I am still somewhere breathing.

To that, I was cranky coming home from our weekend in Kittyville. It was Easter, I was tired and pissed off at one of the common themes I am often angry about...and pick at it when I am tired. So, my clever husband turned the conversation around and had me laughing and doing research in the way back machine such that I want to share it with you. Be prepared. This roll has to do with Pittsburgh, Ham, Easter, and a very uptight club. Ham is the underlying hold on tight as we are going to start with the sublime and move to the ridiculous. 

Growing up, we didn't eat out. My mom cooked, packed lunches for the girls (the boys bought their lunch at school and my dad had free range of all the culinary opportunities downtown...with discussion of what was on the lunch menu every night at dinner just to keep the conversational ball going with him). My mom cooked dinner, made soup, made breakfasts and pretty much handled all of the shopping and prepping. She was not raised to cook--having a cook at her house growing up--and even through my childhood with my grandmother she was unable to even open a box or a can to make something to eat. The Cook had Sundays off (poor woman...) so my Grandmother and Grandfather would either take us to the Club for lunch and then have something exotic like a bucket of chicken from Kentucky Fried Chicken that made an exquisite add to the melee at lunch at their house every day.

My grandmother made lists, made menus and did a bit of the matching column a with column b to make leftovers at lunch. She knew how to order and how to buy the groceries...but that is where it stopped. So rolling it forward, my mom had to learn from scratch how to cook--and she did with all of us as her test kitchen. Nothing was ever thrown we ate the good with the ghastly (which she would never acknowledge as bad). As we got older, she got to be better and better and we, the kids, learned how to cook from her by acting as her sous chefs from the time we could look over the top of the counter and hold a dull or dull serrated knife. But this is all a different story for a different time.

For a treat we were sometimes taken out for, as my dad would say "a hotdog" which meant either a hotdog or a chip chopped ham sandwich at Islay's. Islay's was a Pittsburgh tradition, a deli counter with prepared foods that had hotdogs, milk shakes and sold a form of shaved, barbeque ham (better, processed pork product) that you could have prepared for you at the store (to eat in) or take home to doctor with your own Ketchup mixture. Islay's also was the creator of that Pittsburgh culinary tradition known beyond the 'Burgh, the Klondike Bar. Islay's was as synonymous with the real deal Pittsburgh cuisine as Lemon Blennd (a personal favorite) and the now well known Primanti's sandwiches with cole slaw and fries smashed in on top of a murder of eggs, capicola and american cheese (which we would partake of after midnight when they would open for the truckers bringing produce to deliver to the Strip). I get off topic. Ham.

So, shaved ham, or "chipped chopped ham" is a mystery meat shaved from a perfectly square block of pinkness. There is absolutely nothing that says ham. It is Processed and about meatness...but reallly it is more about the sauce (combined barbeque sauce, a little vinegar, a little mustard and a ton of ketchup heated up with the meat and generously plopped on a chintzy white, soft hamburger bun (no seeds, nothing interesting please). The styling is simple, white bun, messy hot meat drenched in ketchup (essentially) with the top of the bun smashed on top and the works put on a thin paper plate that was not designed for that endurance. But it was a treat and on those special Saturdays when we would "rubberneck" with my dad and mom or actually have something to do--it knocked the day up a notch to have a trip to Islay's with this poor man's ham barbeque sandwich thrown into the mix. 

Mystery writer, Cleo Coyne waxes about the Chopped Ham sandwich (with a recipe no less and instructions on how to get the ham just right). Here she is for you>>

Back to ham. Know this. Pittsburgh is a big ham town. Why wouldn't it be? It is a town filled with nuggets and neighborhoods of nationalities that rarely leach across the street from one zone to the next, but the Polish, Hungarians, Czechs, Bohemians, Germans, English, Scots, Irish, French, Italian, Slavic, all embrace ham in their own way--and as you all know--there is ham, and then there is Easter ham.

Growing up, there was also the oddity of meat in a can, the canned ham -- sometimes called "Danish Ham". I pitied the Danes as this was the ham they "had to eat"--though god knows if canned ham had anything beyond marketing that had to do with the cool Danes and their good design. Somehow I doubt it. Ham was ham (prosciutto and lovely local ham were not on that horizon until much later when I started to cook). There was cheap ham (the blocks that were found in the deli case at Islay's for chip chopped ham); danish ham and then ham on the bone or boneless from the grocery store. Ham, to my mother's absolute delight, was cheap--and was something that was parsed beautifully into amazing leftovers that were easy to make from soup with the bone, to ham salad and casseroles with canned soup/noodles and bits of ham.

My mother was not limited to the Dorothy Parker famous quip: "Eternity is a ham and two people"--and frankly, with Jesus' imminent return thanks to the promises made that morning at Shadyside Presbyterian Church, it would be a miracle for us to get through the enormous hams that came home around Easter time to feed nations. Heck, who knows, we might have had leftovers to take with us to ascend to be with Jesus on the great heavenly escalator....(just like Joesph Hornes).

So, Easter, at least for my family, is the ham holiday. Thanksgiving is Turkey. Christmas is a Red Meat event. New Years was always pork because "it doesn't scratch back". Sometimes there was sauerkraut offered with Thanksgiving, and black eyed peas offered with New Years. Snopes says confirming this tradition for New Years' food:

"Food:   A tradition common to the southern states of the USA dictates that the eating of black-eyed peas on New Year's Day will attract both general good luck and financial good fortune in particular to the one doing the dining. Some choose to add other Southern fare (such as ham hocks, collard greens, or cabbage) to this tradition, but the black-eyed peas are key.

Other "lucky" foods are lentil soup (because lentils supposedly look like coins), pork (because poultry scratches backwards, a cow stands still, but a pig roots forward, ergo those who dine upon pork will be moving forward in the new year), and sauerkraut (probably because it goes so well with pork).

Another oft-repeated belief holds that one must not eat chicken or turkey on the first day of the year lest, like the birds in question, diners fate themselves to scratch in the dirt all year for their dinner (that is, bring poverty upon themselves)."

This left ham for the Rebirth of Jesus and the big white bunny. If my mom didn't cook, we would do something wild and go to "The Club" for their Easter Buffet Spectacular, or me, the wildest food moment in the universe that no one paid attention to.

So the Easter schedule of events would be that we would go to Church and then follow it up with lunch and then a quiet afternoon at home. "Church" was The Shadyside Presbyterian Church--where an intimate gathering of thousands (no kidding, this place is a Richardson Romanesque Barn (designed by H.H. Richardson) that even today on the Shadyside site they say) (remember, this is marketing):

"Some might see our impressive stone building as intimidating and surmise that it houses an affluent congregation that might be cold and unfriendly, but we’re eager for you to encounter Christ through some of the warmest and most welcoming folks you’ll ever get to know."

Interior: Shadyside Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh, PA Please note the Christmas Trees in the altar area for scale....

Interior: Shadyside Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh, PA
Please note the Christmas Trees in the altar area for scale....

I tend to think they are right in the lead in of that sentence. When I was growing up, the deacons wore cut aways and white gloves every Sunday to greet people at the door. With white gloves and white ties, spit shined black shoes,and hands at their backs at leisure. Not super friendly. No, not intimidating at all. These dudes would cruise down the aisles (about 3 in the middle and sides) along with the balcony and pass sterling silver offering plates to the fur coat wearing Republicans who had their self-assigned places in the sanctuary. They would then proceed in lockstep up from the back of the church to the altar (surrounded by bright gold tilework reminiscent of Byzantine {read the Emperor Constantine) tessilation. The huge pipe organ would shake and blast...and the money was laid down on the altar (I assume that was symbolic for the holy blessing with all that theatre). Easter had huge urns of fragrant Easter lilies, and great pious hymns of ressurection and rebirth. The paid choir (many from the Pittsburgh Opera) would soar and herald the greatest day of the Christian Calendar.

And all of this happened on Easter Sunday before lunch--so if your stomach wasn't clenching from hunger, it was out of angst for your inadequacy, oddness or inability to process this odd intersection of conservative people, fur coats, professional choir and organ, silver offering plates and then the discussions on humility and poverty. Never seemed to balance out for me. Loved the theatre and the guilt though. Reality was not present in that sanctuary.  So, rest assured, by the end of that hour or so, you were ready for cold compresses and the fainting couch, but the thrill of being taken to "The Club" for Easter lunch completed the celebration.

So, off we would go to the unassuming "Club" which was less than 10 minutes from the church. We would all peel off to the various cloakrooms adjoining the restroom with chintz sofas, hairbrushes, all sorts of smells and kleenex to "freshen up" and make sure that your knit dress wasn't climbing up your pantyhose clad legs thanks to remarkable static cling or that nothing was hanging out or out of alignment. We would adjust and smooth. We would hang up our coats in the coatroom and progress elegantly on the celery colored carpet surrounded by quiet, tasteful wallpaper and chippendale reproduction furniture.

We would meet the boys and go find our table--reserved for all of us, grandparents or extra friends that would come along. The pre-food activities were drinking for the grown ups and some sort of prescribed "fun" for the kids. The grown-ups stayed upstairs in the dining room area, having drinks and nuts while we where shoo'ed downstairs into the darker regions to make noise and give the grown-ups a break.

The Club would have a person in a bunny rabbit suit there to hand out jelly beans (scary just like a clown) and the other thing for the "kids" was some sort of other "entertainment"--either someone doing card tricks (generally someone not too skilled so it was boring) or a magician but my favorite was the year they had a clown (you know I am horrified of clowns, right?) who also was a stripper during his off "non clown" gigs...and this clown promoted both of his skills openly to all of us "kids". There we were with this clown who had a shaved chest, arms and armpits with big muscles and a tight vest on in addition to the rest of the regular clown stuff (big shoes, makeup etc). Creepy doesn't even begin to describe it. Entertaining, Yes, but not given this particular context and audience.. Not the wholesome, "I have my monogram on everything" kind of way. Let's just say, this was a detail The Club faltered on, but they made up for it in the piece of resistance upstairs in the dining room. I loved it and still do, that this sort of fumble went way over the heads of the grown-ups and many of the kids too. I love it that this way creepy clown stripper ended up in our midst--really off the reservation for all of us...lifting the corner of the tent into a world that did not extend into our prescribe universe framed up by church, school, The Club, Camp and occasional "hot dogs" at Islay's. 

So, when lunch was ready, we were herded back to our table, our home base, first there were the classics. Salad or Vichyssoise? Vichyssoise, of course! Who doesn't like to drink gallons of leek and potato flavored heavy cream with freeze dried chives sprinkled on the top. Then, off to the buffet! The buffet was seemingly miles long--endless lengths of starched white linens with men wielding knives, carving beasts, ladies doling out vegetables and crispy little potato sticks or little swirled piped gems of mashed potatoes, browned with cheese slid onto the side of the plate as a little amuse bouche. Of course there was asparagus with hollandaise. Of course, there was creamed spinach. Of course there was a succinct moment with puff pastry shells and seafood newburg. And then there were the display hams.

"Cold Glazed Baked Ham" www.

"Cold Glazed Baked Ham"

Stop right there. So, you get the scene...its a buffet line with all sorts of delicate little things encouraged and placed on your plate. There were big strong men carving hams, turkeys, lamb. There was seafood in a cream based stew. It was all very right and tight...and then someone forgot to manage someone's meds, and there was (every year, you could set your calendar by them) a huge arrangement of display hams (and a few turkeys thrown in for fun). This meat art was beyond my wildest dreams--with hams slathered in pastel colored goo and encased in gelatin--with decorations in between of flowers and fruit. The image above is way too tasteful than 2 dozen or so hams at the club that were vertically mounted, standing tall like sentinels in lemon yellow, a bluish pink, pastel orange ('creamcycle"), and even a soft blue with decorations of carrots, peppers in all colors, greens and pimentos to tell the decorative story. A ham backwall to the Easter feast!

Forget the tacky ice carving. Forget frills on the lamb chops. This was the ham version of carved watermelons on cruise ships, or the ham version of carved radishes. And what was this thing called? I was entertained and challenged to find the name and process for this extravagant food art and preparation--but somewhere between Green and Bainbridge NY, I bumped into "Jambon Chaud Froid" detailled by none other than Martha Stewart. Of course, Ms. Stewart makes this Disneyland ham prep tasteful and glorious in her recipe. Then, noodling around some more, found that there was another approach, probably the one the Austrian chefs at the Club used (c. 1965 is this recipe) with mayonnaise (a lovely base for pastel food coloring) and seems a bit less fussy than the approach Ms. Martha suggests.

Who ate these display hams after all the tables were cleared and the clown went home? Who enjoyed the spectacle of hammigoodness that only the very few of us had a chance to witness and only one or two to remember? Who is recreating this marvelous technique today to  enchant our children and friends with all the wonder we can bring to meat?

Is ham still a Pittsburgh hallmark now that Islay's is gone and there is no home for chiip chopped ham? Are we too big in our gourmet boots to relish this culinary folk art? I look back in awe (and shock) at this rare moment that spun around the central moment of the Christian calendar. 

I am totally onboard with eternity with a ham. At least there is enough to keep us all amused.