Now even then at the age of thirty, there was still one vegetable that I refused to eat and that isn't easy for a boy who grew up with a mother from rural North Carolina, for vegetables of all types are expected to be eaten. Kale, however, was just one thing that I detested so even Mom backed off on that one. But my life in St. Mary's County, Maryland would change that and it would initiate itself to me during the Thanksgiving celebrations of 1977. The memories of that first exposure to kale done in a way that it was actually good will always stay with me, for it is the only way I can eat kale even to this day.
Working at Patuxent River, my department of employment had a tradition of a big Thanksgiving feast for which they closed the office for the entire afternoon on the day before Thanksgiving. Most of the base did the same. And working for the Navy was a large contingent of local Southern Maryland folks who really knew how to cook. I was told, as were the other newbies that were from other places, to bring items other than food. The ladies in the work force told us they would handle the cooking and wow, did they. On the morning of the feast, the ladies were excused from work to get things ready. We had a large conference room where the food would be laid out and the kitchen nearby was busy as the incoming dishes were made ready to serve, sending the wafting aroma of all things Thanksgiving up and down the hallway to all of us. By ten o'clock I was already hungry as a result, as were most of us, and by the appointed hour to close up shop I was starved. Soon thereafter, as I walked into the room which was decked out beautifully for the occasion, the large conference table, now under a beautiful and huge tablecloth, was covered with main dishes, many vegetable concoctions and stuffing and gravy, cranberry sauce and desserts enough to cause a diabetic stupor.
As I walked up with my plate to "load up" in the serving line, I was told politely by the Director that I could have no turkey until I had the special feature. While there were two large cooked turkeys on the table, even more prominently displayed were three large country hams that had been stuffed with kale. He assured me that if I tried it, I would like it and with the smirk in the smile on his face I knew I was beginning a rite of passage. I was stumped and cornered, and right there at that moment I knew I would have to give it the old college try. One of the ladies who was serving took my plate, put two luscious large pieces of ham on the plate, spread the kale stuffing over the top and handed it back. She bet me that I would come back for more with a smile. I added other items and a delicious and decadent slice of pecan pie with topping, but no turkey yet, and went out into the wide hallway where tables were set up for us to eat. There was a small musical group that was even there to provide music for the occasion and as I sat down, I saw both the Director and the serving lady at the doorway watching me. I said a small prayer, cut a piece of ham and added kale, grimaced ever so slightly and took a bite, expecting something horrific. Wow, I thought, this is good and it was so good that I never even asked for turkey. The kale had been chopped quite fine with the addition of onion and chopped tomatoes and seasonings, and the way it had soaked up the juices of the ham made it the perfect accompaniment to the meat. But I will confess, it's still the only way I'll eat kale and, by the way, it was also accompanied by St. Mary's fried oysters. I learned that day that St. Mary's ham stuffed with kale and fried oysters constitutes the main dish for both Christmas and Thanksgiving in the county, the home of the original capital of the Catholic British Colony of Maryland in the New World, founded in 1634.
During my six years of life in St. Mary's County, which was still very rural in those days, I enjoyed myself immensely and loved the seafood that we caught routinely. Nowhere I have ever lived had better blue crabs or oysters, plus rockfish supreme in season, and the holiday parties, often held in the local volunteer fire department, were always informal and oh, so much fun. I can still to this day never forget Maryland crab cakes, the best on earth, and the areas near the river and the bay had great similarity to Roanoke Island and I felt right at home. It was also the place where my maternal great-grandfather spent nearly a year as a Confederate prisoner of war toward the end of the Civil War at Point Lookout, at the eastern point of the county. As far as St. Mary's stuffed ham goes, Google it and you can find many recipes. If you've never had it, give it a try. It will make a believer out of you. Just another great holiday memory from another beautiful place where those who love the water are always welcome and feel at home.