By ADAM DRAPCHO, LACONIA DAILY SUN
If you'll be sitting down to Easter dinner on Sunday, the odds are pretty good that there's a slice of ham on there somewhere. There's no rule that the cured, smoked pork product must be part of the menu. Rather, it seems that the foods that Americans eat as part of their Easter feast are chosen to continue the tradition they first encountered as children, sitting at a table shared with older relatives.
"It's family history – what your mother used to do for Easter," said Bob Fitzpatrick, store manager of Vista Foods in Laconia. It's his job, and the job of his department managers, to anticipate what all of his customers will be looking for to continue their family's tradition, and to stock the shelves with the ingredients they'll need to make that possible.
It's a high-stakes game, so, fortunately, Fitzpatrick, who grew up in Belmont, has 30 years of supermarket experience to draw upon. He knows to order extra pineapple, asparagus, potatoes, pie crusts and other baking items. His store will stock twice the amount of white eggs as usual, so children will be able to dye eggs for the Easter Bunny to hide.
While it's the duty of people like Fitzpatrick to attend to the changing tastes of his shoppers – an ever-diversifying craft beer section, for example – the Easter season is as predictable as it comes.
"From the time we grew up to now, people eat the same thing for Easter," said Fitzpatrick. "Once you're in this business year after year, you know what you need."
In Vista's meat department, meat manager George Lodge and assistant manager Tim Walker said that the week of Easter is ham's yearly turn in the spotlight, when they'll sell ten times the volume of ham than they will in a typical week.
"Everyone's buying ham," said Lodge. Although, he and Walker suggested that there are plenty of alternatives to consider for people willing to consider a new tradition. Some customers have special ordered pork roasts, and Walker recommends a spoon roast, the part of beef that New York sirloin steaks are cut from. Then there's the Easter underdog: leg of lamb.
Lodge said that there have been more lamb legs sold this Easter than in seasons past. He suggests preparing it the same way that one might a beef roast.
"I would rub it with olive oil, season it with garlic and peppercorn seasoning mix, a little bit of rosemary. Sear it at 450 (degrees) for ten minutes, then roast it at 350 for 20 minutes per pound for medium rare."
Dave Henrick, owner of the 405 Pub and Grill on Union Avenue in Laconia, said he decided to go with leg of lamb when picking a special for Easter.
"Lamb is something nice to offer, something different," he said. Their special will feature a butterflied leg of lamb, rolled with goat cheese, tomato and spinach, and served with a tzatziki sauce. Henrick picked lamb despite his own family's tradition of having ham on Easter.
"It gives people a unique choice," he said. "We decided we wanted to be a little bit different than the traditional baked ham."
At the Fox Country Smokehouse, which has been in operation for nearly a half century, manager Bill Annis has no intention of going for "different." He follows the same method that has seen the small, remote business thrive, despite being located on a quiet dirt road several miles off of the beaten path in Canterbury. The business was founded by Charlie Fox in 1969, and is now owned by Charlie's son Matthew. Annis, who has worked there for 20 years, runs it essentially by himself, though neighbors have made themselves available if he needs a hand now and then.
Annis said that business has steadily grown over the years, with returning customers spreading the word about Fox Country's products. Fox Country Smokehouse produces smoked cheeses, bacon, sausages, jerky, poultry and fish, but its ham products are the volume leader.
In preparation for this Easter season, Annis ordered 210 hams from his pork supplier in Canada. Each of those hams was cut into two sections, and each of those 420 ham halves was given the Fox Country treatment: cured for at least a week in a liquid brine of salt, sugar and spices, then smoked for 24 hours in a chamber filled with hickory wood smoke. Most of those are already spoken for, though he expects to have some still available this weekend for last-minute shoppers.
At $4.99 per pound, Fox Country's hams command a premium over supermarket competitors. Annis's customers are happy to pay it, though.
"Once anybody's had it, or given it as a gift, they've come back and re-ordered," he said.
Whether traditional or unconventional, the food on the table is merely a complement to the people around it. Fitzpatrick, who has lived all around the state, recalls coming back to his mother's home at this time every year. "For her, it was huge. It was time for the family to get together."
Walker said he's planning this year to visit family that isn't going to be cooking at all, and he's looking forward to it just as well.
"I think we're getting Chinese," he said with a smile.
David Colbath, meat cutter at Vista Foods in Laconia, arranges hams in the meat case. In the week leading up to Easter, Vista sells about ten times the hams that it usually sells. (Adam Drapcho/Laconia Daily Sun)
The Fox Country Smokehouse in Canterbury prepared about 420 ham halves for customers in preparation for Easter. (Adam Drapcho/Laconia Daily Sun)
Bill Annis, manager of Fox Country Smokehouse in Canterbury, packages hams. He said Easter the one of the busiest times of year for the small business, second only to Christmas. (Adam Drapcho/Laconia Daily Sun)