Judges pick best hams

Friday, July 17, 2009 | 6:11 p.m. CDT; updated 6:29 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 18, 2009
Andrew Clarke of the MU food science department judges part two of the Boone County Pork Producer's ham show Friday at the Boone County Fairgrounds. The judging period consisted of judges poking, smelling and evaluating dozens of country cured hams for characteristics such as "meatiness," smoothness of skin, fitting and aroma. The top 40 hams will be auctioned on Sunday.

COLUMBIA — At 7:15 Friday morning, 191 hams sat in front of ham Contest judges Andrew Clarke and Don Neumann. Some three hours later the two agreed they had found their winner.

The top-scoring ham, which belonged to John David Bullard of Ashland, scored 97 points out of a possible 100. The top ham in the youth category was submitted by Hallsville 4-H member Matthew Hensley, and it received 94 points.

Ham contest winners

Open category

First place and Grand Champion: John David Bullard (97 ponts)

Second place and Reserve Grand Champion: Neil Randall (96 points)

Third place: Stan Lynn (94 points)


Youth category

First place: Matthew Hensley (94 points)

Second place: Leah Easley (92 points)

Third place: Brendon Barnes (92 points)

Fourth place: Morgan George (92 points)

Fifth place: Paige George (91 points)


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Nearly 75 years of ham judging experience exists between Clarke, an associate professor of food science at the MU, and Neumann, who graduated from MU after World War II with a doctorate in food science. Both men have gained their experience from competitions across Missouri.

“We have worked together many times over the last 20 years,” Clarke said. "We work together very well."

Though many ham contests are only judged by one person, larger contests such as the Boone County Fair and Missouri State Fair often require additional judges, Clarke said. Though having more than one judge can cause scoring disputes, Clarke and Neumann have few problems.

“As long as we’re within one (point) of each other, it’s OK,” Clarke said.

Judging a ham is a multiple-step process.

A ham can earn up to 100 points in eight categories. Eye appeal, outside color, smoothness of skin and fitting are each worth five points; trim and firmness are each 10 points; meatiness and aroma are worth 25 and 35 respectively. Points are assessed by the judges and then tabulated on a score card attached to each ham.

In Friday's judging, Neumann gave points for eye appeal, outside color and trim, while Clarke looked at smoothness of skin, fitting and firmness. They scored meatiness and aroma together.

As they walked among the tables of hams, each seemed to have a personal routine.

Neumann looked hard at each ham, searching for visual imperfections and taking note of problems that could cause a lower score. A good ham does not have much variation of color or texture, but instead is smooth and symmetrical, according to the score card. Few issues escaped his watchful eye.

“There’s too much whittling on here,” he said of a lean-looking ham. While large quantities of fat are undesirable, trimming too much meat reduces the quality of the finished ham.

Sometimes it only takes a sniff to estimate a ham’s quality. As Clarke approached the end of one table, he stopped to notice a particularly pungent ham.

“Something on this end of the table doesn’t smell right,” he said.

Both judges evaluate the aroma of a ham using a small metal poker about six inches long, which they stick into the ham and then smell. The one Neumann carries, sheathed by a worn cob of corn, was given to him by one of his professors from his college days.

“When you stick this (poker) in the ham you can tell how it tastes with one exception — you cannot tell how salty it is,” Neumann said. “Salt forces out the moisture and keeps the spoilage bacteria away, and also adds a good bit to the flavor.”

If not enough salt is added, yeast bacteria can enter the ham and cause tastes and smells reminiscent of cheese. Clarke and Neumann deducted as many as 18 points from the ‘aroma’ category for a cheesy-smelling ham.

“It’s like wine turning to vinegar,” Clarke explained. “Vinegar is fine, but not when you just paid a bundle for it."

Though the winning hams were determined Friday morning, prizes will not be awarded until after the ham breakfast, held Saturday, June 25. Until then, the hams will remain displayed in the Multipurpose Room at the Boone County Fairgrounds.

According to information provided by the Boone County Fair, all entries to the youth category will receive ribbons, and the top five placing youth hams will receive cash prizes from the Boone County Fair.

Only the top three placing hams in the open category will receive ribbons and cash prizes, though additional cash prizes will be given by the Columbia Chamber of Commerce to the top three hams in both the youth and open categories.

The top 40 scoring hams will be publicly auctioned following the ham breakfast.  Ninety-nine percent of the proceeds will go to the owners of the hams, with the remaining 1 percent kept by the Boone County Fair Board, ham contest committee member Paul Little said.

The top two hams, regardless of category, are deemed the Grand Champion and Reserve Grand Champion, respectively. Traditionally the owner of the Grand Champion ham has his or her name engraved on a ceremonial silver tray, and receives a plaque. The owner of the Reserve Grand Champion ham, this year Neil Randall, also receives a plaque.

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