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Southern Salads: Ham Salad

Libby Wiersema Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.
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Baked ham is a classic centerpiece on tables across South Carolina. But what makes it such a hit with Southern cooks is its penchant for being just as tasty the second—or third—time around. Ham salad is one such subsequent incarnation that is as time-honored as the savory-smelling shank of clove-studded, golden-glazed pork reserved for Sunday dinners and holidays.

Like lots of simple dishes, ham salad was a standard during the Great Depression, holding its own next to delicacies like bacon grease sandwiches and chipped beef over toast. When supplies were particularly short, “ham” salad was often made from bologna—certainly not as appetizing, but an apropos substitution given the times.

Considered one of the South’s premier picnic salads, ham salad is the perfect hack for ham leftovers, giving them delicious new life without tasting like last weekend’s supper. Potlucks, luncheons, cookouts, parties and post-funeral gatherings are also common destinations for bowls of chilled ham salad. Spread it on thin slices of bread for tea sandwiches, swirl it on crackers and top with an olive slice for a dainty canape, pile it on an onion bun with leaves of crisp lettuce for a satisfying sandwich or just spoon it into a bowl and dig in with a fork. It’s all good.

While ingredients may vary somewhat, Southern-style ham salad is always bound by creamy mayonnaise. Pickle relish is another must. Celery and green onion are optional, though they are mainstays in many a family recipe. Some folks like a touch of mustard for a little tang, but it should be just that—a touch. And the convenience of having a trusty food processor at hand for grinding the ham should not be underestimated. Sure, all that kitchen labor was done by hand back in the day and some South Carolina cooks still like it that way. If you want to put forth the effort, that’s fine. It’s the end result that counts, after all: a palate-pleasing spread that shines in its versatility and deliciousness.

Now, pull that ham out of the refrigerator, trim the meat and whip up a savory batch of Southern ham salad. Heck, this stuff is so good, you might want to buy a bigger holiday ham just so you have plenty of leftovers.

Southern Ham Salad
(Note: Feel free to add a grind or two of black pepper or a few drops of hot sauce for a more piquant flavor.)

Ingredients
2 cups baked ham, trimmed and finely chopped (by hand or in a food processor)
¼ cup celery, sliced
¼ cup scallions, green and white parts chopped
1 tbsp. sweet pickle relish
¾ cup mayonnaise (Southern cooks tend to prefer Duke’s brand.)
1 tsp. yellow prepared mustard
Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl. Chill until ready to serve. For a real Southern treat, spread a generous spoonful of ham salad on a warm buttermilk biscuit. You might never want a sausage biscuit again.

Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.