Across North Carolina, milestone events — from baptisms to weddings to funerals — have one much-loved Southern delicacy on the menu. Regardless of the occasion, ham biscuits comfort and nourish us as we celebrate, mourn, and gather.
Saving grace comes in many forms. For my family, it manifests in a country ham biscuit.
I remember standing somewhere between the kitchen and the front hall as a gaggle of friends and relatives waded between rooms at my uncle’s house in Little Washington. Earlier, we’d gathered in the Episcopal church downtown, where we sang the stalwart “Onward, Christian Soldiers” as pallbearers carried my grandmother’s casket down the aisle of the 150-year-old sanctuary.
Fresh from the service, I was feeling as drab and deflated as the black shift dress I wore. I nodded along as my grandmother’s dearest friend kindly told me all of the things she loved about her: her tennis playing, how she was the consummate hostess and always on the go.
“Yes. She sure did like being alive,” I replied.
The ever-gracious septuagenarian excused herself. My sister, who witnessed the inelegant exchange, laughed, handed me a country ham biscuit. “Here,” she said. “Eat this and try not to talk anymore.”
And there it was. The perfect combination of salty, sweet, buttery, bready goodness in two bites.
Handed down from a time when no part of the pig went unused and bread was a welcome staple, country ham with some kind of biscuit to put it on has been around since North Carolina was a colony. Over the course of generations, families tweaked recipes until they settled on a favorite. The foundational ingredients for ours are simple: Mama’s easy yeast rolls and country ham shaved paper thin, which makes for a perfect flaky, salty porcine bite.
Country ham shouldn’t be confused with baked ham. For one thing, it isn’t cooked; it’s cured with a heavy salt brine (and sometimes sugar and other spices) and then hung to dry-age for anywhere from a few months to a couple of years. After the ham is cured, some folks smoke it to add flavor. Then, once you remove the dry, briny coat with a good soak and a scrub, it’s ready to be cut and served. These are all things I leave to the ham makers, of course.
My family’s country ham biscuits aren’t complete without something I lovingly call the “ham sauce,” which consists of butter, Worcestershire sauce, brown sugar, and a good, spicy mustard. Per my mama’s recipe notes, it requires a little practice to get the expert “flop” of the biscuit into the sauce — a flop being somewhere between a dunk and a dip. The point is to get the biscuit to sop up a generous amount of sauce.
Celebrations just wouldn’t be the same in my family without ham biscuits.
A country ham biscuit was the first bite I had after saying “I do” on my folks’ farm outside of Raleigh on an early October evening in 2010. With just enough chill on the breeze to remind you that fall had arrived, my new husband and I emerged from the ceremony somewhat dizzy and dazed. And then we saw them: warm ham biscuits atop silver trays being passed through our guests in the pasture during the cocktail hour. The tray came to us first and then never again. Those two ham biscuits had to sustain us for the evening, our appetites giving way to the bombardment of love that we received that day.
For the past 15 years at our annual Christmas party, friends have handed over their coats and asked, I didn’t miss them, did I? When I plunk those golden ham biscuits into a holiday linen-lined basket and pass them, people set down their drinks so they can grab a biscuit in each hand. When they take a bite, then close their eyes and smile, I know they taste and feel the Christmas spirit.
This Easter, as we gather at the family house in Oriental, I’ll have ham biscuits ready to warm up in the oven for post-bunny brunch. Following egg hunts and, if the weather allows, a quick Sunday sail on the Neuse, ham biscuits will have a prominent place on the table as cousins, sisters, and grandparents pull up chairs and join hands for grace. The biscuits will serve as one of those offerings to celebrate being together, being a family.
As we pass dishes and fill plates, someone will ease into a story about loved ones who are no longer with us. Heads will nod and laughter will erupt as those who have passed are with us at the table again for a fleeting moment.
And should there be sass or an awkward exchange at the Easter table, I’ll have a ham biscuit at the ready. “Here. Eat this and try not to talk.”
A Legacy of Ham
Godwin’s Country Meats
For more than 50 years, three generations of Godwins have prepared meats. Hams are cured for up to eight months and smoked with hickory wood.