Yesterday was Easter, and that meant I spent most of the day wrestling with a sixteen-pound ham, dismantling it with sharp knives and thinking of my mother-in-law and my children's ancestors and even some of the characters in my novel
My novel is set during slavery in Louisiana, from 1811 to the early 1840s. Meat was used for reward and punishment during slavery, and some people in the novel always crave flesh. Their bodies need it, and their minds desire the equality of the meat ? the people who owned them ate ham and bacon, and the owned were lucky to get white salt pork or innards.
I wrote one scene where a woman steals ham to repay someone for kindness, after the fall butchering of hogs on a plantation. The ham ? the pink feathery flesh of the leg, made me think that we are only animals as well, when I wrote about the butchering.
My mother-in-law, Alberta Sims, taught me to make a good ham, and to share it with everyone. My own mother was born in Switzerland, and for Easter, she concentrated more on the eggs and desserts and chocolate. Growing up, we might have had a canned ham swimming in watery juice. But my husband's mother, from the time I was sixteen and first met her, always made a huge smoked ham whose smell permeated her tiny kitchen and even wafted outside to the driveway. She fed fifty or so each holiday. When I married her son, she taught me how to make dishes that fed everyone, even the casual visitor who showed up with a nephew, or some guy walking down the street who stopped because he saw people eating in the driveway, sitting on folding chairs.
My mother-in-law felt that anyone who stepped onto her property was her guest. It's a longstanding tradition in the black community ? the only way to show someone hospitality is to offer food. (My eldest daughter has started to notice that her wealthier school friends often have parents who offer no food, or any encouragement whatsoever, to guests.)
From the time I was a teenager, in my future husband's house, I heard stories of how people craved meat. The men I knew had shot squirrels and possums and raccoons for survival, and their mothers and wives had skinned and roasted and stewed what was brought to them. (They said they'd never eat snake, though.) In Riverside, California, where I have always lived, my in-laws shared a whole pig with us sometimes, and my father-in-law's friend raised the hogs and butchered them. We ate pork chops unlike anything found in a grocery store.
Alberta died in 1995, months before I had my third daughter. I think of her every day.
At Christmas and Easter, I buy a large smoked ham. Today, my back was killing me. Ferrying around twenty pounds of meat and bone is hard. I put it on a rack in a huge roasting pot from my ancient Fridgidaire stove. After it's been in the oven for half an hour, I take it out and pull off the collar of skin, leathery and etched, which has loosened with the softened fat. I trim more fat from the sides, and I stare at the shimmery tendons and slick surfaces of cartilage.
When the ham was nearly done, I put a glaze on it, and then spent the next six hours slicing at various times. My parents, my ex-husband, my children, and my neighbors all got plates of sliced ham. My neighbor M came over to tell me her car broke down again today, to ask if I can drive her kids to school this week. She has driven mine many times. We have been neighbors for seventeen years. She is as fierce as can be, and whenever there are drug dealers or roughnecks on the block, she's the one who stands with me in the yard staring them down, or calling the cops, or just threatening them ourselves ? we're both short and implacable. (Her favorite phrase ? "You take us all out to the woods, and I know who's coming out after a week ? you and me. We can survive on anything.")
When she first moved in, and she and her husband noticed my light on until three in the morning, they came over to ask what I was doing so late at night. (He was a machinist working in his garage, so his light was on, too. But we had methamphetamine cookers on the block back then, so we were all checking each other out.) I told her I was writing. She cocked her eyebrows and said, "Why?" (That's a question I ask myself quite often even now ? the existential why of writing, like now, at midnight.) I couldn't explain it. I ended up telling her and most people I was folding laundry, and they were cool with that.
Now she knows what I do. Tonight, like always, I gave her a big plate of ham when she left.