How Easter Ham Became a Delicious Tradition

Plus, why fewer people choose lamb for their holiday meal.

Photo: Jonathan Lovekin

When you think of Easter do you picture spring flowers, colorfully decorated eggs, and sugar cookies made to look like adorable chicks? If you're like most people, you probably think of your holiday meal, too. Like Thanksgiving and turkey, Easter has that traditional main dish that defines the holiday meal-Easter ham. Whether for dinner or for brunch, serving ham at Easter has become expected. That's not to say we don't enjoy this tasty food throughout the year. Ham is also popular at Christmas, and some people even serve a ham as an additional entrée on Thanksgiving. Still, Easter is when this delectable dish really takes center stage.

One reason ham became the meat of choice for Easter dinner is because it was available. Historically, pigs were slaughtered in fall and cured over the winter. They were ready to eat once spring arrived and the Lenten fast ended. Today ham is available year round but is not as widely marketed as a Thanksgiving or Christmas choice.

Another fact about Easter and ham is that the tradition doesn't stretch back as far or as wide as you might assume: "In the early to mid 19th century, Easter was not widely celebrated in the United States," says Cathy Kaufman, president of Culinary Historians of New York. "Most, but not all, Protestant sects north of the Mason-Dixon line viewed Easter (and Christmas) dimly, as 'popish' holidays. By contrast, southerners were Anglican/High Church and more receptive to feasting for the holidays." The style of dining for affluent southerners was to offer several roasts or meat dishes rather than focusing on a single entrée. Ham was always one of the meats available.

Ham became more of a tradition in the late 19th and early 20th century according to Kaufman because "meal service became streamlined, focused on one main meat dish, partly because households had less help." As Easter came to be more widely celebrated, ham was there.

If there is a challenger to ham's position as the meat of Easter, it has to be lamb-roasted leg of lamb to be precise. Lamb is enjoyed in many countries that celebrate Easter, but ham proves to be the most popular holiday dish in the U.S. "Many people find lamb 'too strong,'" says Kaufman. And she adds that ham comes with sugary glazes and pineapple rings which appeal to Americans' sweet tooth.

Whether you like Easter ham glazed or unglazed, whether you opt for city ham or country ham, chances are you're already looking forward to the glistening pink meat that's the centerpiece of so many Easter tables, and likely to the leftovers to come. It might be relatively recent but the tradition of Easter ham has become just as iconic as that of the Thanksgiving turkey.

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