LOCKE BOWMAN: Just What Is Ham -- or Jam -- 'What Am'?
Regular readers of Editor Steve Bouser's column, which normally appears in this space on Wednesdays, know about his annual foray into the kitchen to prepare a supply of peach jam.
I've had the good fortune to be on his list for gifts of this ambrosial product, dating back to his very first batch. When I have a rare episode of insomnia around 3 a.m. or so, I toast a piece of whole grain bread and slather it with a generous coating of "Bouser's Peach Jam What Am" (that's the label on the jar).
Minutes after savoring this treat, I drift off to sleep again. The peachy fragrance and inimitable flavor combine for a remarkable soporific!
The label is exactly right. This is jam what am.
Only lately, however, has Steve discovered that "jam what am" is unfamiliar idiom to many of his jam-loving friends. Slowly they've been confessing they frankly don't get it. What does it mean?
Well, I recognized this adapted catch phrase easily. Steve and I are both from Missouri, where we routinely praised "ham what am." Certainly my father used the expression every spring when he would carve into the first of the season's tasty hams, fresh from the smokehouse where it had been curing since early January.
It's hard to capture in words the sensory delights of a slab of country ham produced the old-fashioned way with no chemical ingredients of any kind.
In the late summer, we'd lay in a supply of small hickory limbs and stack them in the smokehouse to dry out fully before butchering time arrived.
The hog slaughter took place out by the barn. The killed animals were immersed in scalding water to loosen the hides which had to be scraped and cut away. Every bit of the carcasses would be used in ensuing days and weeks: fresh tenderloins to be roasted and sliced; livers to be ground and made into a pate; skins and chunks of fat to be boiled for "cracklin's"; heads ground for "head cheese"; and various leftovers converted to highly seasoned sausage stuffed into cloth casings and made ready for slicing and frying.
But the super prizes of butchering were the thighs (rumps), carefully prepared to be hams that would last all the way through the coming year. Every farm family held onto a favorite recipe for curing hams. At our house the meat was rubbed with coarse salt, heavy dark sorghum molasses, and an ample coating of brown sugar.
Meanwhile, the hickory wood would be lighted on the concrete floor of the smokehouse, and the hams hung on hooks for a couple of days to absorb the pungent smoke from the repeatedly stoked fire below. How I loved the smell of that smoke leaking out from the eaves of the sturdy little white building erected for the sole purpose of curing hams.
"Now, this," my dad would say every year, "is ham what am!"
That expression was more than a Missouri regionalism. The Armour meat producers in Chicago packed their 20th century prize hams in containers labeled "Armour Star Ham What Am." On e-Bay you can bid for an advertising placard picturing this product in 1921. (It's listed for $2.99 or so.)
But whence comes "what am"? Research, coupled with a little imagination, leads me to conclude that these words embody the logic of Old English. Centuries ago, the word "what" could be used interchangeably with "that" or "which," as in "roses what grow with few thorns."
And "am," as the first person singular form of "is," could sometimes appear in the third person as well, as in "roses am red, violets am blue."
No doubt these usages were heavily colloquial, but they explain, for me at least, how one could exclaim, "This is ham what am" (meaning emphatically that it is the real thing -- just as it should be, and there is none better).
One source I found on Google speculated that "ham what am" (or "jam what am") belongs under the heading of Southern dialect. In your mind's eye, picture a white-coated waiter in a charming hotel dining room bearing a beautiful ham on a platter for serving tableside. As he draws the sharpened knife to do the carving, he beams, "Now this is ham what am."
And when I invite a guest to my cottage for tea, I toast a few pieces of pita bread and serve them with Steve Bouser's marvelous peach spread. Proudly I announce, "Now, this is jam what am!"
Locke Bowman, a retired Episcopal priest, is a copy editor with The Pilot.
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