The Universe has been sending me signals in the last week or so, and I reckon I ought to acknowledge them.
Almost every day, from the age of three until I was about 15, my lunch was as reliable as Old Faithful. I would have chips, a dessert of some sort (cookies or a Little Debbie something-or-other), and a sandwich made with Underwood Deviled Ham. Even after I had grown up, when I’d return to visit my folks, they would have several cans waiting to see me through the weekend. It’s still my favorite sandwich, and if I’m not in the mood for a hot meal, it’s my go-to. At the moment, I have about a dozen cans in my pantry.
On one occasion in grad school, I mentioned it, and a Kuwaiti classmate asked me to explain what it was. I told her it was ground and spiced, rather like a pate. She said “That sounds good — but I can’t have it, of course.”
“I know,” I said. “It’s deviled haram.”
A few days ago, Michael Dearing (my friend for almost fifty years now) texted me a picture of some cans of deviled ham, and mentioned that he had seen some at the grocery, thought of me, and bought some. (As a frequent lunch guest when we were growing up, Mike got his share of Underwood as well.)
Then last night, someone on Twitter was asking about unwholesome dining habits of our younger days, and my buddy the Maximum Leader mentioned — well, you guessed it. I immediately jumped into the conversation, and added that my only concession to adulthood (besides a tendency to make double-decker sandwiches) was adding mustard (preferably spicy brown, but I’ll use yellow if that’s what’s available.) And these days, I’m more inclined to having it on wheat bread, rather than the thrift store white bread on which I grew up.
(Side note: On rare occasions, my folks couldn’t afford the tins of Underwood, and would try to sneak potted meat over the plate (literally). It never worked. You might not notice a difference, but don’t try to run that okeydoke on me, pally. End of side note.)
Anyway, the Leader mentioned that his guilty pleasure is putting the stuff on high-end baguette-style bread. I told him that if I did that, I’d probably have to surrender my Working-Class Southern Roots Card, but we went from there to a discussion of another regional delicacy, Pimento Cheese. I was late to that party, not really developing a taste for the stuff until I was in college — possibly because it was one of those things considered “too expensive” when I was a kid, along with carbonated beverages (which we called “cold drinks”) and orange juice.
(Side note #2: I don’t want anyone to think my childhood was Dickensian by any stretch of the imagination. There are no existing photos of me that even suggest that I ever missed a meal, and I also benefited from things like my dad’s paperback-a-day jones. During my teens, my brother and I would go through at least a gallon of milk a day. But there were things we knew not to ask for, because we’d go through them so quickly that my mom decided they weren’t cost-efficient. End of side note.)
Anyway, the Leader referred to pimento cheese as “pate du sud,” and I thought that was a term worth passing along.
But my first choice is still the deviled ham.
And speaking of ham, my online conversation with the leader turned to the fact that he’s preparing a country ham for his family for Easter. That’s another food with strong family associations for me.
We ate a pretty fair amount of ham when I was a kid. After we moved to Kentucky, we knew that visits to my grandparents in Nashville would mean that there would be a pot of coffee waiting for my folks, and a ham for all of us to nosh on after the five-hour drive. But that was typically an ordinary baked ham. Country ham was, again, more expensive, and more likely to show up as a breakfast meat, fried and served with eggs, biscuits, and red-eye gravy. (I’ve always suspected the stuff was called that because it’ll jack your blood pressure to the point where you can squirt blood from your eyes like a horned frog, but I suspect the origin is much more mundane than that.)
So country ham was kind of a special occasion food for us, and after we moved to Kentucky, my folks would occasionally try to introduce it to our neighbors from other parts of the country. I remember my mom being horrified when a neighbor said she had to toss hers out because “it was just too salty.” Oh, well — that lady was from California, and didn’t know any better.
As I’ve mentioned before, my dad was the mayor of our little town in Kentucky for about twenty years, starting in my undergrad days. Somewhere around 1986, a woman in Union wrote a song calling for dialogue and peace between nations, and made a recording of the kids at the elementary school my brother had attended singing it. She sent the recording somewhere, and the next thing we knew, Soviet broadcaster Vladimir Pozner, Jr. had gotten hold of it and wanted to do a featurette on these peace-loving people in America’s heartland (as opposed to the Warmonger Reagan, I reckon.) In short, it was a propaganda opportunity. My dad knew that and had no use for the Soviet Union, but at the same time, as mayor, he had to put in an appearance for all this stuff.
We were sitting around the dinner table during the run-up to this, and Dad said, “I need to give this guy some sort of gift, but I don’t know what.”
I pointed out that a gift of food was seen as a traditional and cross-cultural invocation of the code of hospitality, and that the expression “I’ve eaten his salt” was a sort of acknowledgement of obligation. Country ham, I suggested, might do the trick, and had the added advantage of being a regional product. Dad liked the idea, and in fact, a member of the city council was a farmer who happened to deal in country hams.
And so on the fateful day, Mr. Pozner received a coonskin cap from the local Judge-Executive (we lived in Boone County), and a country ham from the mayor of the city of Union, complete with cooking instructions in English and Russian — Dad had called someone at the U of Cincinnati to help with that part.
And so, boys and girls, that’s how country ham won the Cold War.
Years later, the city councilman, a man named Eddie Johnson, turned the ham thing into a full-on business and catering operation. His son, Eddie Jr., was a classmate of mine in high school, and helped with his dad’s business until his premature death in a farming accident. The city cemetery was behind our house, and my dad helped Big Eddie buy his son after the accident.
As you might expect, Dad and Big Eddie remained friends even after both had left the city government, and my folks would occasionally get a country ham sent from down the road. After my parents were murdered, the city had a memorial event in my folks’ honor, naming the city building for Dad, and a garden out front for Mom.
As that event neared, folks from the city asked me what they should serve at the event’s reception. That one was easy, and that’s why we gathered at the old fire station, drinking iced tea and eating biscuits with country ham.
A little while ago, before I started this post, I called Mrs. M, who drinks a pretty fair amount of coffee. I asked her if she brews the coffee flavored, or adds the flavor later. As it turns out, she brews regular Folger’s, and adds the flavoring and such later. There’s usually a good-sized pitcher of the stuff in the fridge. She asked why I wanted to know.
And so who knows? There may be red-eye gravy in the house before too long.