I learned how to carve Virginia ham long after I stopped eating it.
I’ve been a vegetarian since the age of 15, but cured and baked ham has always been a centerpiece of my family’s holiday table. I still remember the intense saltiness of the meat, the crust of brown sugar, and the faint, bitter flavor of cloves at the edges. As a child, I loved eating ham sandwiched in biscuits or soft rolls, and I never questioned what the slimy work of scrubbing, brining, boiling, and baking must have cost my vegetarian mother.
A few Christmases ago, no one else was available to carve the ham—my uncle was deep-frying the turkey, my mother was roasting vegetables, and my dad and brother must have been watching football—so my grandfather handed me a carving fork and a sharp knife.
“But I’m a vegetarian,” I protested.
“Your mother is too,” my grandfather said. “I bet you’ll be good at it.”
I’ve never been able to resist the opportunity to be good at something. So after studying up on the proper technique (I recommend the description in The Gift of Southern Cooking, by Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis), I set to work, wrapping the hock with a tea towel and grasping it firmly with one hand while making the first, short slices toward the bone. Because Virginia ham has such a strong flavor, it must be carved very thinly. My initial attempts produced fat chunks, but I soon got the hang of it, carving long oval slices you could practically read a newspaper through. The trick is to go slowly, and not think too much about the pig.
Though I wouldn’t eat any, I was strangely proud. “Look at that,” I said, to no one in particular. My missing family members—my brother, my dad, and my uncle Skipper—suddenly appeared. I let them have the messy shards but kept the fine slices—rosy, paper-thin, with a bit of crispy fat at the edges—for the table.
My grandfather nodded approvingly.
“Very nice,” said my dad.
I’ve been our official ham carver ever since.
Author Belle Boggs calls herself a Tidewater vegetarian, which allows for eating oysters in the R months.