Ask a native Cincinnatian what a ‘cottage ham’ is and they’ll be quick to answer. It’s the delicious 3 pound heart-shaped cured ham their mom used to boil slowly with bay leaves and onion and serve with boiled potatoes and green beans. They might even recognize it as a ‘cottage roll.’ But go only 40 miles out of the city and ask a butcher for a cottage ham and they’ll say, “Huh?”
That’s because cottage ham is a Cincinnati meat term that’s been used by our local butchers for at least the last 100 years. But no one outside our metro area seems to know the term. Cottage ham is actually not a ham at all, by the definition, which states that ham is taken from the upper part of the pig’s hind leg. The USDA actually calls what we call cottage ham “smoked pork shoulder butts,” but that just doesn’t sound as romantic as cottage ham. The cottage ham is cut from the upper part of the Boston butt. The Boston butt is confusingly not from the rump of the pig, as it’s name may imply, but actually from the shoulder.
No one seems to know where the term came from. Even at Stehlin’s Meats on Colerain Avenue, who have operated from the same site their grandfather started in 1918 , don’t know its origin. At Stehlin’s they use a 100 year old salt-and-sugar cured, hickory wood smoked recipe to make their cottage ham. Before being cured and smoked, cottage hams are about the size and shape of a large, rectangular brick. A reasonable theory on the name might be that a Cincinnati butcher in the 1800s dubbed them cottage hams because they are small, like a cottage home – just the perfect size for cooking in a pot of beans.
The fat in a cottage ham is well distributed and dissolves into the meat while cooking. Local butchers reveal the secret that the further away from the pork shoulder you get, the less flavor you get in the meat. That’s also why a lot of legacy goetta recipes call for pork shoulder, like my maternal grandmother’s recipe. So against your thinking, the cheaper cuts of meat like shoulder are actually more flavorful. Another local pork favorite, Bockwurst, sold in the colder months before Easter, is made from pork shoulder, with neck meat added, to give it’s delicate flavor.
Two other versions of hams from Germany also popular in Cincinnati are quite different from our cottage ham.
Traditional Westphalian ham is made from the hind leg of acorn fed pigs, slowly dry cured (meaning it’s not injected with brine like most commercial hams) on the bone, and then smoked over a mix of beechwood and juniper. It’s typically eaten thinly sliced in its preserved state, without any cooking, sort of like Italian prosciutto. But, it’s smokier than Prosciutto, denser, and chewier.
Black forest ham is taken from isolated muscle of the pig leg. It’s a lot like bacon with a light brown rind and light veins of fat. It’s intense smoked flavor is balanced by a bit of sweetness.
So like our only locally understood terms Pony Keg and City Chicken, we in Cincinnati will stick to calling our smoked pork shoulder butts “cottage ham,” confusing out-of-towners, and saying “Please?” instead of “Huh?”