On Easter Sunday you’re most likely to see lamb on the menu in most of the world, at least where Easter is celebrated. That is, everywhere but the North America and Northern Europe. Lamb never experienced the level of popularity in America that it sees elsewhere, and so it is that ham is the central fixture of the meal. In the US, Easter ham is ubiquitous. It’s just a sliver of the 50 pounds of pork we eat a year per capita, but it has tremendous significance as the symbolic cornerstone of the holiday. So, how did the U.S. come to change up the traditional Easter meal?
First, a look at lamb in the US. In 2018, American meat companies produced roughly 26 billion pounds of beef compared to 150.2 million pounds of mutton and lamb (the only meat we eat less of is veal, while chicken is at the top of our list). The average American eats less than a pound of lamb a year. Lamb tends to be pricey, tricky to cook for the inexperienced, and has become an acquired taste for American palates. Those who did grow up eating lamb at home probably associate it with copious amounts of mint jelly, meant to mask the gamey flavor and leathery texture that comes from overcooking it (which happens all too often).
But this wasn’t always the case. Lamb used to be more common when wool was in higher demand. As synthetic fabrics began to emerge in the 1940s and wool was no longer needed for uniforms and other material in the war effort, the need for sheep decreased as well. In the past 75 years, the number of sheep in the U.S. has gone from 56 million to just six million. With the popularity of lamb waning, the door was wide open for a new star of the Easter meal. And the timing for ham to step in was perfect.
From a production standpoint, ham also tended to make more sense than lamb. Sheep typically give birth in the spring. The result is that a farmer has to sacrifice one of the flock, giving up a source of wool later in the year. Being such a production-focused society, the loss of that single animal can be a hard sell. Conversely, pigs are traditionally slaughtered in the fall when the weather cools and the meat could stay fresh in the lower temperatures as it was broken down. Back when refrigeration was rare or nonexistent, farmers would set aside the meat they hadn’t sold to be cured throughout the winter to preserve it.. By spring, the cured meat was ready to eat – just in time for Easter.
But there is a social element to it as well. Hams are larger than lamb and easily serve a crowd. You can buy it fresh or frozen, prepared or ready to add your own flourishes. Leftovers are easily preserved and readily adapted once the crowd is gone. In a country where we increasingly see interactions with the extended family becoming less routine, a ham can accommodate these uncommon gatherings and provide a point of familial intimacy.
From last night’s dinner to feasts of celebration, food has always played a fundamental role in a nation’s culture. Whether eating an Easter ham or steamed fish off a green Brazilian banana leaf, food is always about more than just nutrients. We connect how food can trigger memories both good and bad. Food is more than just what you eat every day, but what it does to our sense of place, our sense of well-being?
Food is a medium of communication. There are subtle messages in everything food-related: who sits first, who cooks what, when to take the last piece of pizza, when are you comfortable enough to eat leftovers off someone’s plate. Food can be a history lesson. For example, many West African recipes feature tomatoes, a colonial cash crop that only arrived in Africa via the slave trade. The potato is a fixture of Irish cuisine, but it is a latecomer to the island’s history. By paying attention to culinary details such as these, we learn the intricacies of one of its most necessary features of life. Understanding these intricacies means better communication and better marketing strategies.