stories

Dad's Christmas Ham

left: original artwork, right: the tea towel itself (creased, stained and used)
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I open my eyes, stretch my limbs and look at the clock. It’s 9am on Christmas Eve, and the house already smells of my Dad’s Christmas Ham.

Ever since I was young, this scent filled my bedroom as I got ready - only further fuelling my excitement for the day ahead. The first smell to hit my nose was usually that of an enormous side of gammon, simmering in salty water. But as I edged closer downstairs, towards the kitchen, the sweet scent of honey and mustard hit me, followed by the *clink clink clink* sound of a metal spoon hitting the side of a Pyrex jug repeatedly. Next I’d see my dad, looking up, smiling at me, giving me a morning greeting and most likely asking for me to make him a coffee as he stirs the mixture he’s lovingly concocted as I snoozed.

This is a memory, or a knot of memories tied together from the strings of past Christmases, that sits as close to my heart as possible. My dad passed away at the end of last year, so 2018 was the last I smelled, and tasted, of his (according to him) ‘famous’ Christmas ham.

If I cook bacon at home, I get a sample of the smell, like when you spray a strip of paper with aftershave at Boots. But it’s nowhere near the same thing - the initial sharp saltiness hits your nose, deftly followed by syrupy honey and intense mustard - it’s like nothing else to me. It instantly transports me to happy times, when my dad was excited to get the festivities underway. My stomach registers the smell as the start of something big, it preparing to receive an obscene amount of Christmas food, like a trigger.

exclamations of joy, buttered bread and a second cup of tea

Dad’s simple tradition, which he told me harked back to his childhood, was to eat ham and pork pie with coffee or tea on Christmas morning, usually about halfway through unwrapping presents. And if you didn’t have tomato ketchup on the side, you may as well not bother.

I realise that this tradition makes my dad sound like a medieval knight feasting on whole sides of ham and pie with his bare hands (I kind of like that image to be honest, now I’ve typed it). My dad was a simple man, he loved his garden, listening to test cricket on the radio and spending time with his family. He wasn’t massive on cooking, unlike myself, which made his monster Christmas ham all the more special and befitting for him. A lump of meat, plus another lump of minced meat wrapped in pastry, that was my dad as food personified.

The preparation of the ham also resembled him as he was. I remember him slathering the joint in honey and mustard - unmeasured, might I add. The only time my dad didn’t measure something, he was usually meticulous with measurements. See: the bar he built in our back garden one summer, perfectly measured, no mistakes.

He’d then stick in the oven on an undefined temperature for an undefined amount of time. Yet it always came out perfect – brown, almost black on top where the honey and mustard mix had caramelised, and perfectly moist in the middle.

The first thick slice was 50% crust, and me and dad usually split it between ourselves and mum, who usually showed up once it had come out of the oven, almost instinctively. This was usually followed by exclamations of joy, buttered bread and a second cup of tea or coffee. Or beer, or wine, maybe even whisky? That part of my memory is hazy, understandably.

I remember biting through the crust, making my way to the juicy middle. Salt, almost too much salt, combined with candied honey and punches of wholegrain mustard.

One time my dog, Alfie, who my dad absolutely adored, jumped up the kitchen counter and stole about 3-4 thick slices. He spent the rest of the day drinking water from his bowl, trying to combat the threat of dehydration brought on by wolfing down multiple portions of sodium-rich ham.

and with that, the responsibility fell on me

Christmas 2019 came around, without the same feeling of joy and happiness. We were distraught, but our family isn’t one to just give in to sadness - my dad wouldn’t have wanted that. So we soldiered on, and I was determined to keep one of our very few traditions alive.

Mum came home with a big side of gammon from the butchers, and with that, the responsibility fell on me. I’m not unfamiliar with the kitchen, I cook and bake to a decent standard, and I really enjoy it, so what pressure could there be?

The only issue was, as I mentioned earlier, that dad never measured his ingredients, so the whole thing was a guessing game. But all of those years of watching my dad prepare the ham guided me along the path to glazed ham glory.

To cut a long story short, it came out perfectly. Caramelised crust, moist middle, thick slabs, bread, butter, beer.

The smell as it cooked, as we sat and chatted about dad, invoked all previous memories of him. And that’s the power of food, it can bring a range of emotions to the forefront of your mind. Whether it’s the tomato-laden scent of your mum’s lasagne cooling on the kitchen top after you’ve been out playing with your mates all day, the gaseous smell of boiled cabbage making you want to run and hide in your bedroom or the dreamy waft of fresh doughnuts beachside, food is a powerful tool to elicit memories.

I plan on carrying on dad’s tradition, it’ll be one of the many ways to remember him by. It’s one of my favourites, because it means I get to cook. We don’t have many, if any, family food traditions, but the one we do have is as special as they get.