Saveur (June/July 2012)
Fried Coke. Fried Oreos. Fried butter. Fried ... everything?
Let's face it, state fair food does not have a good reputation. And for seemingly good reason. The "breaking food news" that emerges from state fairs is all about novelty and a race to figure out what extreme item can make it into the deep fryer next.
Unfortunately, this State Fair Ham Loaf isn't going to redeem that reputation any time soon.
Before we share our thoughts on this dish, let's talk a little about who we are. Yes, we write this food blog and get a lot of joy out of doing it; and yes, we live in the big city and get to occasionally venture out for fancy meals. But we are from humble places. Zach's from a small(ish) town in Tennessee. Clay is from an even smaller spot in the road in Kentucky that lacks a traffic light. We come from potluck people who make simple, cream-of-mushroom-spiked food that is really great. We have eaten and loved our fair share of casseroles. And we are two boys who love a meatloaf. Beef, turkey, you name it -- our presidential platform is pro-loaf.
We say all this because we didn't like this dish, and we actually dislike that we dislike this dish.
In critiquing a dish like Ham Loaf, it's easy to come across as a food snob. So we just want to put all this in context. Yes, we like nice food and excellent ingredients, but we think there's pleasure to be found in a wide spectrum of food, and we move across that spectrum constantly.
We decided to make this dish because we loved the article that accompanies this recipe -- from Jane and Michael Stern of Road Food and Splendid Table fame -- about regional specialties served at the Minnesota State Fair. This Ham Loaf is served during the fair by the Hamline United Methodist Church at more than 1,000 servings a day, according to the article.
A thousand servings a day? We had to try it. And we dove into this recipe fully expecting to love this ham loaf (even despite the off-putting phrase, "ham loaf." Although, truth be told, we're hard-pressed to come up with a better name. Suggestions?).
The problems are numerous. The texture is odd -- perhaps there's too much egg and bread crumbs versus the pound of ham that's included. The dried spices -- sage, ginger, cloves and allspice -- overwhelm and compete with the flavor of the meat.
And then the dish is topped with a glaze of brown sugar, apple cider vinegar and Dijon mustard. We love sweet, and this glaze is (as you can image) delicious. But the sweet in this case doesn't play nice with the ham and spices. It all seems like something we would have thrown together during our Clean Out the Cupboard Week.
We made a double batch of ham loaf, thinking it would make great leftovers to take to work this week. We made it through most of the first pan before we called it a day and tossed the rest.
State fairs, there's no redemption for your food in this recipe.
1 lb. cured ham, finely chopped
⅓ cup plain bread crumbs
¼ cup buttermilk
3 ½ tbsp. Dijon mustard
1 tsp. ground sage
½ tsp. curry powder
½ tsp. ground allspice
½ tsp. ground ginger
¼ tsp. ground cloves
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1 small yellow onion, minced
Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste
½ cup packed dark brown sugar
3 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
Heat oven to 325°. Place ham, bread crumbs, buttermilk, 2 tbsp. mustard, sage, curry, allspice, ginger, cloves, eggs, onion, and salt and pepper in a bowl, and mix until well-combined. Transfer to a parchment paper—lined 8″ x 5″ loaf pan; smooth top. Heat remaining mustard, sugar, and vinegar in a 1-qt. saucepan over medium-high heat until sugar dissolves. Pour half the glaze over ham loaf; bake until loaf is cooked through, about 50 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes, then remove from pan; drizzle with remaining glaze before serving.