The Christmas ham

Let’s have a Christmas party! Dad said. (Never mind that we’re Jewish.)

That’s what he wanted: The kind of big jolly bash where you invite everyone, and he wanted it on Christmas Eve.

But who would do the cooking?

Dad wasn’t much of a cook. His entire kitchen repertoire consisted of oatmeal and scallops (not together, thank god). Mom was the cook – night after night and year upon year of healthy nutritious food, such as curried cauliflower, and stuffed zucchini. Which, I can tell you, is not what a young girl dreams of.

But Mom was not going to cook for Dad’s Christmas party, she said. She had plenty to do already, since she was a doctor and mother of two and it was the busy holiday season.

I will make a ham! said Dad.

What? we said.

  Would he really attempt it?

Would he really attempt it?

In the YMCA locker room, which was the hub of his social life, Dad consulted with the other men: How does one make a ham? (Ham being a food that had never, previously, crossed the threshold of our house.) On a scrap of paper he wrote his course of action.

On Christmas Eve he went to Super John’s, the market on Federal Street where there was a good butcher. And he bought a great pink ham.

In the kitchen he laid out the cut of meat. With a knife he scored the top. He studded it with cloves. He stirred maple syrup with mustard and brushed it on. He fiddled with the oven knobs.

“This,” he said, when I passed through the kitchen, “is a kosher ham!”

And you know when a guy hits on a joke he thinks is really clever, how he repeats it. Tells it to anyone who’ll listen. That was Dad with his kosher ham. (Pork is never kosher, i.e., it's flat-out forbidden from the diet of observant Jews. Which we assuredly were not.)

Dad was smitten with his cleverness: A kosher ham.

The party was a success. (A glittery success, you could call it, like the party I threw, much later.) We had a screened-in porch with a little fireplace that we hardly ever used, but on this occasion Dad got it working and built a cheerful fire and set out space heaters and laid out a bar with egg nog and cider and rum - and beer, of course. Bottles of cold Rolling Rock.

“Everyone loves my ham,” he said to me during the party, eyes twinkling. “You know, they’ve never had a kosher ham before.”

“I know, Dad.”

And a few years running we had that party. For a brief moment in time it became a holiday staple, the Kramers’ Christmas party. And I looked forward to it, all the folks milling around and drinking holiday drinks and eating slices of pink ham. And in my memory there's music playing, I can hear Jingle Bell Rock humming as people in red sweaters moved about, though probably there wasn't music. We didn't have any radio or music system that I can recall. Still, the whole thing was festive and happy. Just the Christmas party that Dad wanted.

But it died with him. When he was gone Christmas became for me, once again, an un-holiday. It was Dad's party, after all. And who else could make a kosher ham.