What Is It Anyway? is a series that examines the histories behind peculiar and obscure foods. Today, we're explaining deviled ham.
You're already well-acquainted with deviled eggs -- those rich, creamy finger foods that seem so distantly related to the less decadent breakfast staple. But what about deviled ham? Why does it seem so unappealing by comparison (aside from the fact that it resembles wet cat food)? When we think of deviled ham, we think of opening a can and spreading a choppy fusion of meat and preservatives on a soggy sandwich. But this doesn't always have to be the case.
So, what is it, anyway?
Deviled ham is ground ham with added spices such as hot sauce, cayenne pepper, hot peppers, or mustard. The act of deviling, or spicing and sprucing up, can be done to a variety of food products, such as chicken, turkey, lobster, and of course, eggs. Deviled ham has long been a popular canned good, but can also be made at home with a blender. It is not to be confused with Spam, which involves a meat mixture mostly consisting of pork shoulder, and lacks deviled ham's spicier flavor.
The word "devil" appeared in relation to food in the 1700s, and the word "deviled" appeared in 1800 in the following phrase: "At half past two ate a devil'd kidney". According to the Oxford Companion to Food, the term means "to cook something with fiery hot spices or condiments... The term was presumably adopted because of the connection between the devil and the excessive heat in Hell...".
The William Underwood Company is perhaps the oldest and most well-known manufacturer of deviled ham. It began in 1822 as a producer of condiments, and grew in popularity due to its glass-packing techniques, which allowed it to provide food products with longer shelf lives to Civil War troops. Deviled ham was added as a product in 1868, and the company's iconic logo, a sketch of an ominous-looking devil, was trademarked in 1870, making it the oldest food trademark still in use in America.
In popular culture
Deviled ham is mentioned intermittently throughout Barbara Kingsolver's classic The Poisonwood Bible. It is cited as an unnecessary product that Nathan Price's family brings on their ill-fated trip to the Congo.