Dressed in Chanel with a Donna Reed apron, she said it in the most loving way imaginable, trying to score big baklava points with my dad. She always made sure he noticed what a kind and generous human being she was and how much of an effort she put into preparing such a fine meal with such great love.
And she was such a good actress, I might have believed her myself, if my special surprise wasn’t always a big juicy glazed ham — which for this Jewish girl was just one notch above sweet breads and Rocky Mountain oysters.
While I wasn’t raised kosher, ham just wasn’t something we ate in my house growing up. When I tried my stepmother’s ham for the first time, something about that big, pink meaty slab reminded me of the cow tongues hanging in the window at the butcher shop. I hated the fleshy consistency of tongue and dreaded when my mom or Gram brought it home for dinner. We weren’t excused from a meal until we were members of the Clean Plate Club, so tongue (like liver and onions) meant dozing off with your head resting in your creamed spinach.
My stepmother’s ham was like a ‘Nam flashback of disgusting meals gone by. And there it was on every special occasion of my life … holidays, my birthday. We always celebrated with a cherished candied pig.
I’ll admit the kitchen smelled as yummy as a Christmas candle, because she covered the entire outside with cloves. But everything else about ham was just wrong in my book ─ the texture, the color.
“I hate ham,” I told my dad. “She’s doing this on purpose! I cannot eat ham.”
But dad was doing the best he could to keep the peace. He finally caught on and started slipping my brother and me 10 bucks to grab a slice of pizza at Mariella’s before dinner. We’d come back and sit down to my stepmother’s “special” meal, take a small piece of Wilbur, push it around our plates and eat the scalloped potatoes.
A deliberate jab? Let’s just say this was a woman who knew she had a “big girl” stepdaughter who loved bright colors, but every year for the holidays, I got a beige sweater that could fit me AND the entire cast of The Love Boat … plus something really colorful and stylish from Bloomingdales ─ in Twiggy’s size, which I passed when I was six. And every year, she acted so very disappointed that it didn’t fit. She’d return my present to the anorexic department and never get me a replacement gift. So me thinketh the ham was a set up.
And if my celebratory ham dinner wasn’t bad enough, there were ham and eggs for breakfast the next day and a savory ham salad for lunch.
My brother and I recently compared notes only to discover that he, too, got a special ham dinner and beige sweater for every happy occasion. He says he tried to save me by turning up the oven 200 degrees to turn my “special meal” into pig biscotti, but my stepmother still served it.
Scott’s trick was to secretly spit the ham into his napkin and stuff it in his underwear. When left alone at the dinner table to finish his meal, he’d throw his food out the kitchen window. Fortunately for him, that window was right next to the neighbor’s driveway, so dad never went on that side of the house. By the time we moved, years of fossilized pig meat clung to the side of our stucco like barnacles on the Titanic.
Years later, I can say with certainty that my stepmother could have picked any other part of the pig and gotten a much better reception. In my 20 years married to a gentile, I’ve discovered that I love pulled pork sandwiches and baby back ribs, wontons and dumplings. And I’m all over the crispy bacon and sausage on an IHOP breakfast combo. But when it comes to ham, I don’t cook it. I don’t order it in a restaurant. And when I’m a guest in someone’s home, if ham’s on the menu, I quietly focus on the side dishes. I’d rather go to Vietnam and eat a cat.
I still have nightmares of my stepmother happily singing the birthday song as we gathered around that dried up glazed ham. I awake shivering in a cold sweat, and my husband has to say, “It’s okay. It’s okay. It was just a dream. We’re having lobster on your birthday!”
Still, ham just may haunt me ‘til the day I die.
A few years ago, I was in charge of prizes for the annual fundraising raffle at my daughter’s school. I went all over town collecting prizes and rounded up some unbelievably fantastic items ─ electronics, restaurant gift certificates, savings bonds. My committee collected more than 100 prizes, so if you bought a ticket, chances were you’d walk away with something, even if it was only a book.
The day of the big drawing arrived, and parents gathered around to see if their tickets were winners. One-by-one they squealed with delight as they walked away with a TV, a DVD player, a portable stereo and more. Five lucky winners in a row scored $100 savings bonds.
And then my name was called.
I jogged to the front of the room, with my arms fisted in the air, like a contestant on The Price is Right. I’d never won anything in my life, and I was grinning from ear to ear as I tore open the envelope.
Don’t ever say the universe doesn’t have a sense of humor.
I was the only Jewish person in the room. And after all those awesome big ticket items were given away …
Guess who won the box lunch from Heavenly Ham!