Ham Salad — Then and Now

The old City Drug Store in the tiny town where both my parents grew up had a soda fountain that served real cherry limes made with carbonated water, simple syrup, fresh limes, and maraschino cherry syrup and cherries.

That’s what I always ordered.  My grandfather, who took me by the hand and helped me up onto the tall fountain stools with the red seats, ordered a “dry lime,” which cost a nickel and was a small fountain glass of iced carbonated water with a quarter of a lime squeezed into it — a long time before and many miles away from Perrier with a twist.

They also served ham salad sandwiches on toasted Wonderbread.

I never ordered this sandwich because I didn’t like the onions — but because my father’s mother sometimes worked at the fountain, I knew what was in it:


12 oz Spam
6 oz Velveta
1 hard boiled egg

1/2 small onion (about 3 ounces)
1 med. dill pickle (about 3 ounces)
1/2 c Miracle Whip

– You run it all through a meat grinder (or today, through a food processor); chill it; and slather it on toasted white bread.

Yes.  I know.  There’s a reason heart disease is so prevalent in the US.

And actually, it wasn’t quite as bad as it sounds — since the word “slather” is misleading. These sandwiches were not super-sized or in any way a reflection of latter 20th century fast food portion size.  They were modest 2 1/2-3oz servings of ham salad with a wilted piece of lettuce and 2 vapor-thin pieces of good old American best-thing-since-sliced bread.  If this sandwich and a bag of chips was all you ate for lunch — then you probably still came in under 400 calories.  Easy.  It just wasn’t the best-for-you 400 calories.  Even with a “tall” 10-cent Coke from the fountain — the tall glass held 10 ounces and the short glass held 5 — then with the ice, you added a max of 75 calories. This meal had a lot of flavor, it was filling, and it was simple and fast to make at the local lunch counter.

Compare this with the super-sized 1250 calorie burger, lg fries and 32oz Coke lunch at fast food joints, and even the Spam Salad Blue Plate Special at the City Drug was a nutritional bargain.  Half a pound of french fries, half a pound of hamburger meat, 2 slices of American cheese (Velveta’s 1st cousin), a bun the size of E.T.’s spaceship, and 32 ounces — a full quart — of 12-calorie-per ounce high fructose corn syrup, caffeine, and preservatives — and that thin, droopy ham salad sandwich and bag-o-chips starts to look like a religious fast.

Today, however, I’d make a few changes.  My adult tastes do now accept hard boiled eggs, onions, and pickles as acceptable ingredients.  In fact, Those 3 ingredients plus a dab of low fat mayo and a spoonful of mustard would make a darn good egg salad.

But I’m digressing from the ham at hand.  Pork in general is about 40% leaner than it was in the days of the City Drug Soda Fountain.  Pigs have been re-engineered into lean, truck-sized, critters that sometimes look like a WWII pig and taste like a WWII pig — but are outrageously better for you. They are the new and improved other white meat.  So Ham Salad it is.

In 2010, we want purer ingredients.  Bigger flavors.  Recognizable bits of real foods and real spices.  If I were going to make ham salad today for lunch, here’s what I’d use:


-12 oz Smithfield Ham, trimmed and diced to  1/4″ (use a food processor)
-12 oz pork tenderloin, roasted and diced to 1/4″
-4 oz shallots, minced
-1/4 c minced parsley
-8 oz Neuchâtel cheese (low fat cream cheese), softened
-fresh ground black pepper, generous

-1/2 t ground clove

-4 oz minced dried apricots
-2 T orange juice
-1 t orange zest
-1 1/2-2 ounces strong flavored maple syrup
-4 oz chopped toasted hazelnuts
1/4 c lowfat mayo

The trick here is to cream the orange juice, maple syrup, zest, shallots, cloves, black pepper, mayo, and cream cheese together first, then add the apricots.   Because they are dried, they will immediately begin to soak up any liquid they can latch onto.  Fold in the meats and chopped nuts in and try to preserve a chuncy consistency.  A food processor would work for this, but I think it’s important for there to be chunks of ham, pork, apricot, and hazelnuts in this salad.

Again, I’d say there are healthier carriers for this ham salad — whole wheat toast, or a big slab of artisnal breat is always good.  But also consider serving it

  1. as a stuffing for a luscious red tomato — or
  2. scooped into cored and halved apples, or
  3. on top of 1″ thick rings of fresh pineapple.
  4. In the autumn, I’d probably spoon it into baked sweet potatoes the way we sometimes put sour cream, bacon, and cheddar cheese in a russet potato.  If you go the sweet potato route — You might consider dusting it with brown sugar mixed with cinnamon and sliding it under the broiler before serving.
  5. for a breakfast meal, I’d probably take about a 6 oz scoop and mix it with 3 whole beaten eggs, a little milk, and a cup of shredded potatoes plus half a cup of chopped fresh spinach, and bake it up in 2 small casseroles as a fritatta for 2.

When the City Drug Store made its post WWII ham salad sandwiches, Spam was the wunderkind of the corner market.  And it still has its uses.  But in its origins, it was a marvel of shelf stability, savory consistentcy, and fast meals for a busy family.  Now — it’s just one of 7000 choices on the supermarket shelves.

But we’ve all learned to cook and eat from Julia Child, Emeril, Alton Brown, and Anthony Bourdain.  AND — we all know words and names like gateaux, molecular gastronomy, quiche, cassoulet, foodies, filo, Cuisinart, HFCS, Ferran Adria, stick blenders, organics, bread machines, rice cookers, Atlas Pasta Machines, Kobe beef ,glutton-free diets, lactose-intolerance, tree-nut allergies, LDL, HDL, good carbs, glycemic index, the James Beard Award, the Food Network, El Bulli, the French Laundry, Chez Panisse, Les Halles, vegetarian, vegan, the raw food movement, the slow food movement, fast food guilt, and the Iron Chef.  This is the legacy of Julia Chid.

So over-processing Spam, Velveta and Miracle Whip — the original Holy Trinity of processed food — into “ham salad” — is probably not as good an idea as it once was.  We’ve swung from starvation during the depression and food ration stamps during WWII; to the TV-Dinner 1960’s and the Super-Size-Me turn of the century; all the way to a nation where 2 of every 3 people is overweight by at least 10% and fully half the population is medically obese.  We starved, we learned to cook, we learned to love the new and exotic, and now we take for granted Argentinian clementines, white asparagus, Hatch chilis, and Thai coconut and peanut ice cream, even if we live in Joplin, Butte, or Amarillo.

I realize that there is an issue of hunger in America, and there are countries where enough is not even a concept.  But in 80% of kitchens in 1st world countries, food has gone from being barely enough to so plentiful that we experiment, practice, invent, and savor.  In so many of our lives, food is no more a matter of scrapping survival than sex is a matter of reproduction.  It’s the 21st century.

Is it any surprise we’re throwing out fast food in favor of the slow, careful, thoughtful, and hopefully healthier kitchen?  As we green up our lives in relation to the planet, we are also greening up our oven and table.

Welcome to the new century.

(This is Anthony Bourdain, showing everyone
how he feels about food and the fine art of eating, and cooking.)


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