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Munchies

Like Chicago, Krakus Ham Is a Proud Underdog

Ham is not a cool meat, and Krakus isn't even a cool ham. But it's the taste of my adopted home.

by Rosamund Lannin
Feb 22 2019, 3:00pm

Composite Image: KrakusFoods.com // Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Welcome to #NotAnAd, where we post enthusiastically and without reservation about things we’re obsessed with from the world of food.

Ham is an underrated meat, Chicago is an underrated city, and both are well-represented by Krakus. Chicago did not invent America's No. 1 imported ham, but but it did create a market for it: The city is home to the third largest Polish population outside of Poland if you count the suburbs, and with that comes delis and supermarkets and the occasional convenience stores that stock this juicy delight.

To understand the appeal of Krakus, you have to get over your weird feelings about ham. Ham is not a cool meat. It lacks the lean virtuousness of turkey, the crackling skin of roast chicken, the iron-rich indulgence of steak. Ham is sort of retro, but not notably so—it’s no olive loaf or headcheese. And Krakus isn’t even cool for ham! It can’t compete with the brown sugared-complexity of Benton, the holiday glitz of spiral-cut, or the Jersey delight that is Taylor (which tastes like bacon and bologna had a baby and left it to raise itself outside Hoboken). Let’s not even try to compare it to prosciutto or serrano—Krakus may have come from the motherland, but it can’t hold a candle to its fancy cousins.

Krakus ham knows that it’s not showy or artisanal or gourmet, and that’s fine. It doesn’t need to be. It does its job and it does it well.

You can find Krakus Ham in several formats: long deli rectangle, “ham” shape, or pre-sliced in the bag. They are all good. I recommend getting one of the long loaves sliced fresh by a large man behind a counter, but pre-sliced is OK, too. Krakus doesn’t judge and neither does Chicago. You’re in a major city, but you’re also in the heart of the Midwest. It’s either very cold or very hot outside. You’re probably sweating and a little disheveled. You are somewhere vibrant, booming, diverse, yet horribly segregated; a beautiful, horrible, misunderstood place with a chip on its shoulder and an indomitable spirit. We know we’re not the most beautiful girl at the dance, but goddamn we’re pretty and we work hard. We know that we're not the first city people think of, but we're proud of our major metropolitan area. We can’t fall back on our reputation, and we know our greatness is the more stalwart kind.

So buy your Krakus ham and get into your car, or wait for the bus or train. No matter how long it takes to get home, it won’t go bad on the way.

Krakus Ham looks exactly how you expect deli ham to look. Rectangular in shape with softly rounded corners, it is a rosy light pink with subtle, well-integrated white streaks. It’s definitely salty, but not as salty as some other hams. The texture is firm yet tender, never watery or tough. The flavor is definitive but not strong. It’s pleasantly porky, but not exceptionally so. It’s good on rye with mustard and pickles; it’s good basted with pineapple juice and brown sugar; and it’s good fried on an egg sandwich. It is a blank canvas, and it’s often on sale at Jewel Osco—or the “Jewels,” if you’re from here.

My friend John is from here. The south side native turned me onto Krakus Ham in earnest when I was in my early 20s. I’d seen it in stores, and could recognize its distinctive red, white, and blue packaging and its vaguely medieval font. But I didn’t know it like he did. Back in high school, John worked as a telemarketer for a industrial lighting company that would lure in customers with their signature “Krakus Jam”: a sign-on bonus for purchasing a large order of fixtures and bulbs. John promised this package to repeatedly and yet he never saw a single ham. It was one of the many vaguely shady qualities about the place.

The company has since become embroiled in several lawsuits, but John doesn’t work there anymore anyway. (He lives in Australia, which doesn’t have much of a ham culture.)

I still live here, though. Together, my husband and I are French and Chinese and Jewish and Irish. We are not from Chicago, but it's starting to feel like home. This morning, my husband made fried rice for breakfast. I chopped two slices of Krakus ham up, threw into a pan with soy sauce and butter, mixed it into the rice, and melted a slice of American over the top. It was salty, slightly creamy, savory, and a little sweet. It tasted like Chicago; it tasted like home.