Gut Instinct: Hamming It Up

58602680_47743c3136 "My mom wants to know if you like ham,” my girlfriend asked.

“Do I like ham, or will I eat ham?” I replied. Though I love porky pleasures like Wah Fung No. 1 Fast Food’s candy-crunchy barbecue, Redhead’s bacon-peanut brittle and kielbasa ropes at Steve’s Meat Market, I’m no fan of spiral-cut Christmas ham. Overly sweet. Overly salty. Overly symbolic—especially for a Hebe. “I’ll eat ham if you eat ham.” “Stop being difficult,” she sighed, unwilling to break her 15-year vegetarian vow. “I’ll tell her ham is fine.” Oh, ham. Ham! Ham! Ham would be the centerpiece of Christmas dinner in New Hampshire, my girlfriend’s home state. I like New Hampshire. It’s ball-shrinkingly cold, sure, but there’s zero sales tax. That means zesty Allagash White four-packs cost $7 on the nose—a favorable price, for I’d require cases to survive the Yuletide.

“Stop being melodramatic,” my girlfriend interjects. “It’s just three days.” Three days? For fruit flies, that’s three lifetimes.

During holiday lockdown, minutes  sludge past like days. This tedium is exacerbated when visiting your significant other’s folks, a species that fills me with low-grade fear. “My mom keeps bugging me about mar— ” “Shh! Don’t say that word.” “I’ll buy plenty of beer,” she said, stroking my hairy cranium like a basset hound. “It’ll be fine.” “Ham, ham, ham, ham, ham,” I chanted, as our commuter plane puddlejumped to Portland, Maine, on Christmas Day.There, my girlfriend’s dad and younger brother chaperoned us to their ranch home in a working-class hamlet.

“We usually open presents in the morning, but we waited for you,” her dad said. “And after, oh boy, we’re gonna have ham.” “Ham!” I said, like I’d won the porcine jackpot.

My girlfriend pinched the tender flesh a few inches above my elbow, making me yelp like a slyly goosed starlet.“Be good,” she whispered.

Upon arriving and depositing our bags in our bedroom—no separate sleeping quarters for sinful unmarrieds—we huddled around the twinkling Christmas tree. Like a sociologist observing a foreign tribe, I watched family members ritualistically rip off wrapping paper and give thanks for home-manicure kits. “There’s one for you, Josh,” her mom said, passing me a box. It felt strangely novel, like sticking a digit where the sun don’t shine.

“You shouldn’t have,” I said, holding a back scratcher like a scepter. “There’s more,” she said, passing me boxes containing salt-and-pepper shakers, gloves, a scarf and several strawberry-red spatulas. “It’s for cooking,” she said, in case I had devious designs for the rubber scooper.

Within the hour, the gifts vanished.Wrappings were trashed.We relocated to the kitchen. “Can I help?” I asked, wielding my spatulas.

“Well,” her mom said, folding linen napkins, “you can glaze the ham.” Glaze the ham? She should’ve also asked me to hammer the nails into Jesus Christ.

“Sure…thing,” I said. I boiled the brown, clove-spiked goo and painted the meat with sloppy strokes, like a cut-rate housepainter. I baked the ham until shellacked and then let her dad carve fork-friendly wedges.

“Ooh, nice and juicy,” he said, wielding his big, sharp knife. “Yup, juicy,” I said, bonding in my small, awkward way.We sat down and carbo-loaded on mashed potatoes, buttery rolls, veggie lasagna, boiled Brussels’ sprouts, green beans and carrots. And ham, shiny and tonsils-pink.

I dutifully took several squishy bites—all nitrites, chem-lab seasonings and saline, an all- American end to an oinker’s life. “How’s the ham?” Dad asked, digging into seconds.

“Delicious,” I said, devouring holiday tradition by the forkful. Tradition, though, is best in teensy increments. For dinner that night? Ham sandwiches.

Breakfast the next day? Ham omelettes. Lunch? Ham, ham, ham. Perhaps it was a sneaky attempt to convert me to the J.C. tribe. But I’m not what I eat, and by Sunday I was hammed out, hungering for multiethnic Brooklyn food. My girlfriend and I crammed into the car and motored to Portland, to the airport, to home. “Do you want to go see Portland’s Christmas decorations?” her mom asked.

“It’s not really my thing,” I said, engaging in diplomacy far greater than anything the U.S. government has recently accomplished.

“I think the display has a couple dreidels or maybe a…what do you call it?” “Menorah.” “Yeah, a menorah.” “That’s not really Josh’s thing,” my girlfriend added, short-circuiting the conversation.

“But you threw a Hanukkah party,” she said. “That was your daughter’s idea.” “Oh.” Silently, we slogged through the shindeep, slushy snow to the airport, where families said goodbyes both teary and terse—too little holiday cheer, too much holiday cheer, it’s tough to find a happy balance.

“Merry Christmas,” her mom said, giving me a well-meaning, if somewhat misguided hug.