I grew up in an Italian-American family, which meant celebrating Thanksgiving was about having not only turkey, but a multicourse meal that included my grandmother’s lasagna. The lasagna was always served before the turkey because the bird was more of an obligation no one cared about on my family’s holiday dinner table. The next day, we inevitably had turkey leftovers with nary a slice of lasagna in sight.

I think this is why I had an open mind when it came to Thanksgiving dinners with my own children. When my youngest daughter was 10, we had several hams in the freezer thanks to a 4-H project she undertook that included raising market hogs to show at the Cumberland Fair. She raised one to sell at the fair’s auction while the other went into our freezer.

That first year she raised pigs – their names were Pulchra and Titus – we found it distressing to have befriended an animal that would eventually end up in our freezer. But my daughter gave those animals a great life and saying a word of thanks at our Thanksgiving table seemed a fitting tribute. The pigs were well-loved, but truth be told, by the time those pigs were 300 pounds and throwing their weight around, we didn’t shed too many tears when they departed our little hobby farm.

The second year of our ham-themed, birdless Thanksgiving dinner, my cousin’s family visited and were less thrilled with our menu’s turkey omission. That year, I caved to pressure and cooked both our homegrown ham and the store-bought turkey they brought.

I mentioned this in a blog entry I wrote in 2007 and received a comment from Lisa Suhay, the author of the children’s book “Pardon Me. It’s Ham, Not Turkey.” Her book tells the story of early settlers in Virginia celebrating a meal of thanks with ham, a year before the Pilgrims landed in 1620 and (supposedly) served turkey at the “real” Thanksgiving. So regardless of my cousin’s belief that turkey was the only legitimate centerpiece, that book solidified my family’s notion that eating ham on Thanksgiving wasn’t so offbeat, after all.

Since then, I have cooked only one turkey (from a friend’s farm) for Thanksgiving. The tradition we’ve created in my family is to eat a main dish of something that we raised, or grew, in our own backyard.



Serves about 8

3-4 pats of butter

6-7 pound ham

About 20 whole cloves

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/2 cup maple syrup (the real stuff)

Prepare a roasting pan by rubbing the bottom of the pan with butter. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Rub more butter all over the outside of the ham.

Press the cloves into the ham. If the skin is tough, use a sharp knife to poke holes in the ham before pushing in cloves.

Place the ham into the prepared pan. Sprinkle it with brown sugar and drizzle with some of the maple syrup.

Cover the ham with foil. For a 6-pound ham, bake for about 11/2 hours, basting the ham every 30 minutes. Remove the foil for the last 30 minutes of baking. Drizzle with the remaining maple syrup after removing from the oven. Let the ham sit for 15 minutes before slicing.