What It’s Like to Be a Woman at a Ham Bar in 2023

On girl dinners, grief, and the meaning of cured meats.

Not So Deep Thoughts
What It’s Like to Be a Woman at a Ham Bar in 2023
My beautiful hams. Photo:Kady Ruth Ashcraft

I can’t write about being a woman at a ham bar in 2023 without properly acknowledging the sapped state of digital media. When I announced Monday in our office that I was saving my appetite for a visit that evening to a ham bar, my editor jokingly asked if I’d be willing to write about it. Gladly. If I can find a way to milk significance from every single celebrity divorce, I can write about ham.

I arrived at the restaurant, whose website accurately describes it as an “intimate, 20-seat neighborhood ham bar,” before my friend. We hadn’t made reservations because it was a Monday night, an evening on which most New York City restaurants aren’t even open and, I believe, most people aren’t yet eager to indulge their gluttonous sides. Monday is the January of weekdays.

Still, the host asked if I’d made a reservation under the name Kate, which I had not, but that did give me pause as someone named Kady. Were all women dining at a ham bar in 2023 just slight variations of myself? I sat down at the corner of the bar, which faced antiqued mirrors hanging on the wall. After I re-familiarized myself with my own reflection, I moved onto the seven different types of cured country hams on the menu. The server asked if I’d like a glass of wine while I waited for my friend to arrive.

I hadn’t drank alcohol at all over for the last two years, but in the past month I’ve begun to dip my toe back into the arena with the mantra “fancy drinks for fancy occasions.” I froze. Was a ham bar on an unseasonably warm Monday while I met up with an old college friend a fancy occasion? I looked at my old, sweat-stained, fuchsia work backpack stashed underneath the bar. No, it wasn’t. But was it a special occasion? Well, I’d never eaten more than one type of ham for dinner. I ordered a pinot noir in a comically enormous glass.

When my friend finally arrived she immediately confessed to being a little more stoned than she’d anticipated getting. I didn’t mind. I returned to the ham selection. I’d never thought much about how varied ham could taste, or even be described. Each selection promised happy pigs, which I’d be more inclined to believe if they weren’t about to be plated in front of me. Allegedly, their good lives resulted in a good taste. I wondered if my own sinewy muscles became sweeter with each good deed I committed.

We ordered four different types of ham, two of which were described as “funky,” a cow cheese, and a goat cheese. It all arrived on a wooden paddle beside jam, figs, like seven raw almonds, and corn bread in the shape of madeleine cookies. I was instantly reminded of this summer’s examination of “girl dinner,” an analysis I refused to engage with. And yet, here it was being set in front of me. You can run but you can’t hide.

Anytime I think too hard about “girl dinner,” a harmless phrase coined by a hungry woman on TikTok that apparently resonated so deeply with the culture that the New York fucking Times wrote an analysis connecting it to disordered eating, I get lightheaded. I don’t blame anyone in this vicious media climate, from creator to critic, for engaging with the clout-touting term. Cultural value is apportioned these days to virality and influence and then assessing and breaking down that influence with words like “entrenched gender norms” and “neoliberal feminist consumption.” Even my declaration to my coworkers that I was going to a ham bar on an October Monday could be easily perceived as a way to stake out an identity to capitalize off of. And lo! Was content not requested?

The hams were good. Saltiness is next to godliness in my book, and some of these hams were incredibly salty. I’ve had to, for longevity reasons, stop eating Pringles, because if it were up to me I would abandon my work, friends, lover, and family to sit in a damp dungeon being force fed sour cream and onion Pringles 24 hours a day. I’d be so happy that I imagine the cured meat made from my body by my captor would be delectable. I unfortunately don’t have the expertise to describe the hams in refined detail, other than some were saltier than others, which made wrapping slices around a dehydrated fig more delicious.

The check for the evening’s girl dinner reminded me I am lucky to earn a woman’s salary dissecting the whims of celebrities and otherwise internet-famous people. It came out in a doll-sized cast iron pan that was shockingly heavy. In the same way girl dinners were written off as unserious, I assumed the pan was purely decorative and would incinerate if put atop a flame. I was wrong.

I hugged my friend goodbye and decided to take advantage of the unseasonably warm weather and walk the mile and a half home. The stretch of twenty mostly empty blocks between ham and hearth gave me space to think about what had been pressing up against my mind all day. Almost two months ago, my best friend died, and I’m still very angry and very sad that they are not here and I am left to consider the function of teeny cast iron pans without them.

It was a rare night when I didn’t feel overwhelmed by my loss, but rather reflective of it. I slid open the container of my grief and let myself leaf through it like clippings in a filing cabinet. I thought about how life is long if we are lucky, and how 11 years ago when I moved to New York City so many more people that I loved were alive. In front of me was a man with a garbage bag slung over his shoulder, wearing a graphic t-shirt meant to look like Santa Claus’ belly. The scene delighted me. Was he aware of the levity he was gifting to passerby? I thought about how 11 years ago so many people I’ve come to love didn’t even exist in my mind yet. I thought about how something playful and dumb like girl dinners or the countless inane inside jokes I had with my dead friend can be imbued with as much meaning as you need them to be, for work or survival purposes.

A truck halfway hanging out of an auto shop revved its engine and a man smoking a cigarette on the sidewalk cautioned the driver to watch out for me. I thanked him and waved to the driver. I wondered if they were friends or strangers. I wondered what they had for dinner. I wonder if they’ve assigned too much meaning to something and were surprised at that something’s ability to hold it.

Before I left work on Monday, a vegetarian coworker jokingly had told me, “Enjoy your ham.” I did. And I enjoyed writing about it, too.

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