Thomas Wictor

The Great Ham Debacle of 1993

The Great Ham Debacle of 1993

When I read news articles and listen to the radio, the one constant is the state of confusion people have about what motivates the bad decisions we see being made daily. Our government is utterly dysfunctional, companies do really crazy things that alienate their customers, individuals mess up their lives to a level of parody, institutions we used to trust are corrupt and failing, and the entertainment industry produces trash that doesn’t sell.

Why is this happening?

Well, it’s because of the idée fixe. That’s all. People become convinced that a particular action is going to be successful, regardless. Not everybody is like that, but a far greater percentage of the population than we recognize is shackled with idées fixe. These infatuations range from plans meant to change the entire nation to very small and personal schemes that matter only to an individual.

Idées fixe ruled my father Edward Wictor. I don’t know where he came up with some of his notions, but once he’d made a decision, he’d never be turned aside, under any circumstances. His rigidity cost him his life, because he refused to admit that he had stage four, metastasized bone cancer. He couldn’t participate in his treatment, since that would entail a recognition that he had cancer. He chose madness instead, which forced us to let him go.

The hallmark of people with an idée fixe is that they filter out all evidence that their idea isn’t working. My father’s core idée fixe was that it was not necessary for him to follow any directions or submit to laws of nature. He never exercised a day in his life, he drank up to two quarts of Scotch a day, he smoked up to one hundred cigarettes a day, he ate almost nothing but saturated fats and sugar, and he tweaked absolutely all processes in order to “improve” them.

If an architect or contractor presented blueprints for home-improvement projects, Dad demanded changes. If he hired a stockbroker, he disagreed with the recommendations. If he went to the doctor, he ignored the advice he was given, and he changed the dosage of the medication prescribed.

Once Dad decided to build a skiff so that he and Eric could go fishing. In discussing his plans with Tim and me, Dad revealed that he intended to construct a deathtrap.

“They say I’m supposed to use marine epoxy paint. Hell, no! I’ll use auto primer!”

It was clear that whatever vessel Dad made would dissolve in water, and he and Eric would drown. Luckily, Dad lost interest and dismantled the half-completed aberration before Eric arrived for his summer visit.

Dad was so convinced that he knew better about everything that his refusal to follow directions was extended even to recipes. His conviction that he was above all rules made him the agent of the most appalling culinary wickedness ever inflicted on a family.

The Great Ham Debacle of 1993

Dad decided that for Christmas dinner of 1993, we’d have a country ham. If you don’t know about them, they’re the size of a human infant, raw, cured in salt, and aged for six to twelve months. You’re supposed to soak them in water for twenty-four hours and then either simmer or bake them. Simmering is the recommended method. You put the ham in a stockpot, cover it with water, and bring the water to 190 ˚F until the interior of the ham is 163 ˚F.

Baking requires that you put the ham in a shallow pan, add five cups of water, and cover with foil. Or you can wrap the ham entirely in foil and pour in five cups of water. Either way, you put it in an oven preheated to 300 ˚F and bake until the interior is 163 ˚F.

Dad filled a roaster with water and soaked the ham for twelve hours on one side and twelve hours on the other. Then he put it in the oven unwrapped and baked it the way you do a ready-to-eat cooked ham. He didn’t remove the fat and added a brown-sugar glaze and cloves on toothpicks.

When we entered Mom and Dad’s house Christmas Day, the smell was akin to what I’d imagine this was like. There was something horribly aquatic-mammalian about it, but decayed and charred. Tim, Carrie, and I exchanged the glances of the doomed. We were airliner passengers who’d just seen all the engines fall off.

Dad cheerfully invited us to sit down, and then he bought out his platter of horror. It was a huge mound of maroon flesh reeking of the ocean and the graveyard. This was because the two twelve-hour half-soakings weren’t the same as one twenty-four-hour full soaking. The unflushed-out salt and the cooking method for ready-to-eat hams meant that the formerly raw meat was now mummified.

Carving the thing released an even worse, feculent stench. Dad offered a piece to Mom, who accepted. Carrie refused, while Tim and I both took a slice. I put a forkful in my mouth.

The taste and texture were indescribable, but I’ll give it a try: bacon retrieved from the intestine of a giant squid. It caused a completely involuntary dry heave that nearly fired the ham across the room.

With the aid of mashed potatoes, mixed vegetables, salad, and Diet Coke, I was able to get down that one bite, but I was finished. Tim ate an entire slice. He credits his truncated sense of taste and smell. Though Dad defiantly ate two slices, he was pale green by the end of the dinner. None of us wanted desert, so us kids went back to the Rat Palace. Mom told us that soon after we left, Dad buried the ham in the back yard, here.


The clandestine burial proves that Dad knew all along that he’d screwed up, but he couldn’t admit it. His defensiveness prevented him from ever saying, “I was wrong.”

I don’t hold Dad’s approach to life against him. It was a failed coping mechanism. The people responsible for The Great Ham Debacle of 1993 were his wife and children. We knew it was going to be torture, but we didn’t refuse to participate. Any normal person walking in the door and being hit with odeur de pourriture baleine would’ve said the following.

“No. I’m sorry. I know this was very important to you, but it’s not reasonable to expect us to choke down the calamity you manufactured because you refused to follow the specific instructions that came with the ham. I’m truly sorry. It’s not my responsibility to humor you when you deliberately do things the wrong way over and over and over.”

It’s a lot more complicated than that, of course, when it’s your father. But if the person trying to force their idée fixe on you is a complete stranger who gives not the slightest hoot about your desires, we should all have no problem saying, “CRAM IT!” We’re under no obligation to eat salty, stinking, mummified ham just because someone we don’t even know insists that it’s delicious.

The soundtrack to The Great Ham Debacle is this. For those of you who think I’m being disrespectful to my late father, I understand. Your feelings are completely legitimate. My own feelings toward my father are complicated beyond belief. You should know that I’ll preserve the vast majority of his privacy and dignity. However, some stories are so good they have to be told.

There were valid reasons Dad thought he was going to hell. If it makes you feel any better about what I write, I’m confident that he didn’t. Given the choice to forgive or not forgive, I forgave. At great personal cost, I might add. And I did it for his sake, not mine. Nobody is under any obligation to forgive, any more than you’re obliged to eat offal just because someone’s got it in his head that it’s gourmet cuisine.

The point is, I’m not angry anymore. If you knew me, you’d understand how miraculous that is.

Merry Christmas, Ed. But I don’t forgive you for that ham. There are limits.