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The Secret to This Glazed Holiday Ham? Root Beer.

Using a little soda in your ham glaze is an old art, but boiling your ham in two liters of soda may be a more recent practice. The first two-liter bottle wasn’t invented until the early 1970s, when Pepsi came out with one. This must have paved the way for boiling your ham in soda, whether that was the more classic Pepsi or Coca-Cola, or the quirkier Dr Pepper, cherry soda or ginger ale. In “Cooking Across the South,” a Southern Living cookbook from 1980, a recipe for “country ham” calls for two ingredients: the ham, plus four quarts of ginger ale. As far as I can tell, cooking ham in sugary soda has two aims: to impart all those spicy-sweet flavors, while simultaneously softening the inherent, often overly harsh saltiness of the cured meat.

This Christmas, I want to try something different, and to surprise my father, so I’ll cook a ham in root beer instead. The sarsaparilla flavor in root beer lends the meat a woodsy mintiness, which sings when it’s paired with aromatics like bay leaves and shallots. Usually, when I’m home in Atlanta, I don’t have a problem finding a pot big enough to boil a bone-in half ham in soda. (My mother inherited a bunch of stainless-steel caldrons from her mother-in-law, my grandmother.) But while testing this recipe in my shoe-box studio apartment in Manhattan, I found that setting the salty beast in a large roasting pan with root beer poured into the bottom, then covering it with foil and baking it low and slow, was a grand, hands-off way to imbue the pork with the caramel-dark nuances of the drink. And, in that steamy environment, the ham didn’t dry out either.

But here’s the real fun: I like to take some of that root-beer braising liquid and reduce it in a separate skillet until it’s thick and syrupy to make a base for a glaze. Sticky like tar and richly savory in taste, this glaze gets its body and spice from Dijon mustard, its molasses-rich sweetness from brown sugar and its high note, the kind of flavor that floats on top like a finely tuned piccolo in an orchestra, from a touch of rice vinegar.

As much as I love Christmas, it’s the days after that I cherish the most. If you plunk the hambone into a pot of water with a halved onion and boil it for a couple of hours, you’ll be rewarded with a deep, sultry broth. Give yourself yet another reward (it’s the holidays, after all) by turning that broth into congee, what we Koreans call juk: Cook it with some leftover rice and ham, especially the fatty pieces near the bone, and stir in a couple of egg yolks for richness. This is ham and eggs the long way, and it’ll change your life.

One year for Christmas, I took my family to Portland, Maine. We didn’t have Dad’s Crosley there, but we played the same albums from our phones and stuck to our ham-centric menu. The holidays look different to everyone, but here’s what they look like to me: the entire family together in the kitchen, with Louis Armstrong’s raspy vocals overlaying the scene, a powerful memory that has become a feeling I can summon with the flick of a record needle. And it’s not just in December that you can feel this way, the weight of the world lifted for one brief moment. If you own a record player, that time-traveling device, then you can have Christmas in January, July, September. Even better if you cook a ham.

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