The Sweet Success of the Spiral-Cut Ham

It’s the ham world’s equivalent of pop music: a honeyed, easy-to-eat mainstay of the buffet table. Now, even boutique producers are starting to make it.


By Kim Severson, The New York Times (NYT) 

April 9, 2019


In the 1930s, Harry J. Hoenselaar was just another ham salesman in Detroit trying to find an edge.


He spent his days handing out samples of honey-glazed ham and teaching drugstore clerks how to slice it for sandwiches. Although he was a master at knifing ham from the bone, he knew there had to be a better way.


His family, which still runs the Honey Baked Ham Company he founded in 1957, says the answer came to him in a dream. With a tire jack, a pie tin, a washing machine motor and a knife, he fashioned the world’s first spiral ham slicer — a contraption that would become one of the world’s great ham innovations.


If an aged country ham is like jazz, funky and improvised, a spiral-cut is the pop music of the ham world — sweet, approachable and easy to eat. Even though ham snobs may look down on it, it’s a rare critic who won’t grab a slice of the tender, pale pink meat given the chance.


The spiral ham’s natural habitat is the buffet table, whether for holidays like Easter or other life events like graduations and funerals, where the pre-cut meat slides effortlessly onto a plate. As spiral-ham marketers like to say: It virtually serves itself!


Marcie Cohen Ferris, the food scholar whose books include “The Edible South: The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region,” was introduced to the cultural significance of the spiral-cut ham after her brother-in-law died and the family gathered at their farm outside Vicksburg, Miss.


“There was a continuous drop-off of spiral hams,” she recalled. “The delivery guy would pull up, hand us a spiral ham, get back in the truck, drive back into town, grab another spiral ham and do the whole thing over again.”


She was in charge of recording the food gifts in a little notebook. “All I did that day was write, ‘Spiral ham from so-and-so.’”


For those who need a little ham refresher course, a fresh ham is an uncooked primal cut of pork from the rear leg of the animal. Take that cut, rub it in salt and maybe some spice, smoke it over wood and hang it for several months to age and you’ve got country ham. Consider it America’s prosciutto.


That same raw ham, soaked in or injected with brine, spice, sugar and curing agents and perhaps smoked a little creates city ham, the preferred ham for the spiral machine.


Making a city ham is a speedy process. “There’s a pig on Monday, and it’s in the store on Friday,” said Sam Edwards III, who is rebuilding his family’s Edwards Virginia Smokehouse, which burned to the ground in 2016. Other smokehouses have lent a hand, and his bone-in, spiral-cut hams are selling almost as well as the country hams the family is known for.


Spiral-cut hams comprise about 34 percent of all the ham sold in the United States, said Kevin Waetke, a vice president of the National Pork Board.


Shoppers spent about 2 percent more on spiral hams in 2018 than they did in 2017. But they were actually buying about 2 percent less ham. Prices went up, Mr. Waetke said, because America has been sending a lot of hams to Mexico and Canada, so there are fewer for the domestic market.


Still, as cooks have come to care more about the provenance of their pork, they have been willing to spend more on spiral-cut hams. And some producers of higher-quality, boutique hams realize that there is no shame in sending them out already sliced.


This year for the first time, White Oak Pastures in southern Georgia is selling spiral-cut hams from 450 of its Berkshire hogs. The animals are raised on pasture accredited by the Savory Institute, which is dedicated to regenerating grasslands. The hams are $12.60 per pound. (For comparison, Costco’s Kirkland brand hickory-smoked, spiral-cut ham was on sale last week for $1.99 per pound. A whole or half Honey Baked Ham sells for around $7.40 per pound.)

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“Having it spiralized was not even a question,” said Jenni Harris, whose family owns White Oak Pastures and who is a dedicated fan of the genre. “I can’t think about a ham that I have ever had that was not spiralized.”


If the way a pig was raised can affect its quality, so can the way it was processed...


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