Ham has always been part of our family’s Christmas tradition.
At our place in Binondo, Manila, my late mother Carmen always prepared a bone-in Chinese ham bought from a nearby shop. She preferred to buy it raw and cook the ham in a large casserole. She would then glaze it using a large iron spatula pre-heated to almost melting temperature.
That was our Christmas tradition every year, and I still remember the intense flavor of the woodchipped smoked ham, served with lettuce, tomatoes and, depending on your preference, mayonnaise or ketchup.
However, that tradition changed when I was in high school when my late brother, Cesar, enrolled in a meat processing class and introduced my mother to different processed meat recipes. Making ham was one of those recipes.
It expanded our family tradition.
Big annual event
Every year hence, my mother would set a date in December to start “curing” our ham, usually up to 14 days, to allow the flavor to set in and prepare the meat.
She’d buy a whole pigue or leg cut, from eight to 12 kilos, for the family ham. We usually started curing around 10 December in time for the Noche Buena on Christmas Eve.
There were years when my mother would sell her home-cured ham to friends and families and officemates of my siblings, so she would make hundreds of kilos of leg-cut hams as early as 1 December to make the deliveries before Christmas Day. That also meant we were left with “tons” of ham skins, the by-product of the processed ham, that we would give out to friends.
This tradition went on, with the recipe handed over to my siblings until we had families of our own.
As with the Manalo family custom, my mother would set a date in December to gather all my siblings, and we would together “cure” our own hams! Of course, all 11 of us (I have three brothers and seven sisters) would all bring our whole leg cuts and inform our mother of the weight of our meat. This was important to determine the amount of curing ingredients she would prepare.
Preparing our ham became our pre-Christmas family reunion. We would have lunch, drink a few, exchange banters and bully each other. Heck, being siblings, we were allowed to do that.
Tradition lives on
That went on until December 2018, when none of us were in the mood to celebrate. My mother and my late father celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary in late November in the hospital where my mother was confined. The management at The Medical City allowed us to use one of their function rooms to officiate the wedding ceremony and the party later on.
Several days after the ceremony, my father, living alone in the family house, slipped, breaking his pelvic bones in several pieces. He was in the intensive care unit in another hospital from December until late January 2019.
My siblings and I exchanged days to monitor the progress of our unconscious father, and he regained consciousness in the first week of January 2019.
Meanwhile, my mother had to be isolated as she was still recuperating from her many illnesses because of her age. She was 86 at that time.
My father passed on in February 2019, but that year was also an emotional rollercoaster for the whole Manalo family. My mother was in and out of the hospital because of her failing kidney, liver and heart.
We spent Christmas of 2019 in the hospital again, and my mother took her last breath in June 2020 at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. I hadn’t seen her since March 2020 and was not given a chance to bid her goodbye properly.
Last December 2020, my siblings and I decided to revive our family tradition and make our family’s Christmas ham again.
So on 12 December of last year, we gathered at my brother’s house, our leg cuts in tow, and we made our holiday ham together! As usual, there were food, drinks and plenty of stories. A mini-reunion!
The Manalo family “ham-making reunion” was set for 11 December this year. I am now the keeper of the family recipe.