Anne Vallayer-Coster, Still Life with a Ham, 1767.
Dorothy Parker is said to have been the author of one of the best quotes in history: “Eternity is a ham and two people.” Like many such quips, it’s hard to find the original source—although in this case, we can safely assume that life was certainly the direct inspiration.
It’s not just that hams are big—they were even more massive in Parker’s day than they are now—or that a little of the salty meat goes a long way. It’s also the fact that a ham goes immediately from a thing of festive beauty (cue pineapple rings, scored surfaces studded with cloves, glistening patina) to a professional leftover. It goes very gentle into that good night. And, because it is cured, and because it can be used in so many ways, and because you can always, always scrape more meat off that bone—well, you’re really never justified in throwing it away. It’s with you for eternity.
And to think of those two hapless people, staring forever at the leftovers of a festive, glazed love turned cold! Knowing that, however the ham is ground and gratined and loafed and sandwiched, it will basically taste the same. And that this is their lives.
Anyway, I knew ham was deathless, but until very recently, I didn’t realize its true historic import. Ham, in its near-infinite preservability, is responsible for the birth of America. Without ham, we would have no independence, no history, no … no us. It’s basically It’s a Wonderful Life: Ham Edition. Thanks to ham, we have … well, eternity. Make of it what you will.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.
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