Dining Out – July 2014
There is something special about living in Alexandria and being a culinary enthusiast (read: foodie). With the Potomac River, Patuxent River, and Chesapeake Bay within daytrip distance, there is an abundance of local seafood. In their specific season we are blessed with oysters, blue crabs, rockfish, and even fluke. With locally sourcing markets and restaurants there are no boundaries to where our imaginations can take us. Folks from out of town are always eager to see who has the best local crab cake or which method is best when preparing rockfish (the answer to this is always: citric acid denaturation). But seafood does not always entertain the masses and as I consider myself a man of the people – I set out to look for unique foods that are processed locally and hold some type of historical importance.
My search brought me to Southern Maryland stuffed ham, which is a tradition that is mainly perpetuated by St. Mary’s county families. The method is simple yet unique – a 14-16 pound ham is deboned, and with the handling of a surgeon, filled with cabbage, kale, onions, seasoning and spices. It is then wrapped in cheesecloth or if you’re not as legit – stuffed into a pillowcase then boiled. I keep hearing that the rule is twenty minutes to the pound but most recipes are family or institutional secrets, and I could not get too much info on the process from the business owners I asked. The one secret I was able to pick up on was the post boil setting. After the ham is boiled it is left to cool for two hours. The excess stuffing and ham is then served cold as a full meal. Traditionally it is eaten during the colder months when the heat cannot spoil the ham – making it sour and inedible. During the holidays grocers like McKay’s are flooded with orders from families looking for a taste of tradition.
It is believed that residents in St. Mary’s, Calvert, and Charles counties have been stuffing corned ham since the seventeenth century. While crab cakes and grilled rockfish date back to the Native Americans, stuffed ham is believed to have come over from Europe with the original British settlers in Maryland. One of the first historically recorded instances of the ham is when slaves served Jesuit priests Easter dinner in the early eighteenth century. Regardless of the origin, it is a predominately Southern Maryland practice. The only other place it is found in America is in Kentucky, which is believed to have originated from settlers who moved from Maryland.
Well since my job is a restaurant reviewer and not a historian, I decided to actively search for restaurants that served stuffed ham. This is how I stumbled upon Chief’s. Hidden behind a general store, Chiefs has been a family run operation since the store was bought in 1978. The building has acted as a general store, however, since 1927. The founder, William J “Chief” Dent, a Navy man who was brought down to St. Mary’s to work on the Patuxent Naval Air Base, gave the business over to his two sons along with his recipe for stuffed ham. Because of his sons, who actively take part in preparing the stuffed ham, Chief’s has gained a reputation for having some of the best purchasable stuffed ham in the country. So much so that they ship hams all across America. They also are one of the only establishments to offer stuffed ham year round.
Taking the drive down the St. Mary’s county may seem daunting at times, but during sailing season it is a must. Aptly, after a long day of sailing Chief’s might as well be a damn oasis to the tired and hungry. With a simple home-style menu Chief’s is also excellent for pre road snacks. Their stuffed ham is served two ways: either on a snack-friendly sandwich or as a dinner. I opted for the sandwich, which came with a side of sweet potato fries. I was impressed. Maryland stuffed ham has a certain taste of mustard seed or horseradish. It is really spicy but contrasts wonderfully with the salted ham. I added extra mustard to mine because I don’t like playing by the rules.
The dining room has forty seats and the bar has about fourteen. The staff is really friendly and explained as much as they could about their stuffed ham. I noticed that each day of the week had really good food and bar specials, but for the weekend warriors this probably would not help all that much. May be a good reason to take a day off in the middle of the week! A stuffed ham sandwich with fries was only eight dollars, which is incredible. For normal people, who I did not write this for, they do serve awesome seafood as well. With the likes of homemade crab cakes and oysters Rockefeller by the dozen in season, I will definitely come back in the fall.
Chiefs is located is the small town of Tall Timbers. From the D.C. metro area, take Rte 5 South (Branch Avenue) and follow signage to Leonardtown, MD. Continue on MD Rte 5 through Leonardtown and turn right on to Piney Point Road/MD 249. Continue down 249 to Tall Timbers Road and turn right. You will come upon Chiefs on the right. Depending on traffic, the trek is a about an hour and a half.
Written by: Vincent Arrunategui