Here come the hams

Friday, July 17, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 1:28 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 17, 2009
Mikaela Adams, 13, picks up her ham to kiss it good luck ahead of the 2009 ham competition on Thursday. Her mother, Jessica, said Mikaela is a member of 4-H. She said it is a great organization because "parents get involved, and it makes the kids get involved, and they get hooked on it. Now, it's like a competition for her. She tries to outdo herself every year."

COLUMBIA — Although the 63rd annual Boone County Fair does not officially begin until Monday, check-in for the ham contest began Thursday night. Judging for the competition is to begin Friday at 7 a.m.

By 8 p.m. on Thursday, 191 hams had been checked in for judging, according to the contest's co-chair Elaine George. In past years, the number of entries has ranged from 200 to 250 hams.

Although the competition is limited to residents of Boone County, Paul Little, who co-chaired the ham contest for 13 years, has seen contestants come from many backgrounds.

The competition "is not all rural," he said.

Hunter Dougan, 12, and his sister Heather, 9, live in Ashland and are members of the Hartsburg 4-H club. This is the first year they were contestants in the ham contest.

They first got their hams in December 2008, Hunter said. Next, they coated the 20-pound cuts of meat in sugar, salt and paprika to begin the six-month curing process. The hams were then hung in a friend’s shed, where they remained for the next several months.

They moved the hams from the shed only two times. In February, they removed the layer of spices used to cure the meat, and in April they used toothbrushes to clean mold from the meat.

Their goal, Heather said, is to end with a “darkish-reddish” color throughout the ham. Consistency of color is important, and rubbing the meat helps to ensure that it remains consistent.

Virgil Gardner, 82, has spent much of his life around hams. His father started a ham curing business, Bud Gardner Boone County Hams, in 1945, and raised his own pigs on the property. After Virgil and his wife, Joy, took over the company, they sold more than 600 hams each year to customers in 25 states.

Gardner has judged ham contests at the Missouri State Fair and the Fulton County Fair.

He and his wife now help weigh hams for the ham contest, a position he has held since 1993. His scale, a white enamel Dayton Moneyweight, is the same one he used in his business before retiring in 2002.

It comes as no surprise then that both husband and wife are able to spot a good ham. After Virgil announced one ham’s weight as 18.75 pounds, Joy couldn’t help but comment on the size.

“That’s a big one,” she said. “It must be one from Hallsville.”

Each person who competes in the ham contest can only enter one ham. Once it is brought in for the competition, it is weighed and tagged with a unique identification number. The hams are to be judged on eight different criteria, including “eye appeal,” “meatiness” and “aroma,” according to a judge’s score card attached to each ham.

Tim Bunton, from Columbia, and Randy Wehmeyer, from Hallsville, are two members of a group of six friends who cure several hams together each year. Many of the hams they cure are eventually given to family and friends as Christmas presents.

Bunton has been involved with the ham contest for several years, but this is only Wehmeyer’s second year as a participant. In his first entry, Wehmeyer did not place in the top forty hams, but if he wins this year he knows exactly how he will spend the prize money.

“I’ll recycle it into next year’s hams,” he said.

The judging of the hams is to start at 7 a.m. on Friday and is expected to take several hours, George said. The top three prizes in each of the two categories — Youth and Open — will be announced shortly afterward.

A ham breakfast is to be held at the Boone County Fairgrounds on July 25. The 40 best hams, as selected by the judges, are to be auctioned off after the breakfast.

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