COLUMBIA — In his mind, Charley Cary has an image of the perfect country ham.
“Really deep in muscle, stands up deep on the table, nice and round, lean fat-to-muscle ratio, smooth surface, golden color,” Cary said, his face showing contentment at the thought. “Put all that into one ham, and that’s it."
As the solo judge of the Boone County Fair annual country ham contest Tuesday, Cary examined 215 hams to find his ideal.
He had plenty of hams to examine, but none were perfect.
“I’ve worked with hams for the past 32 years — (it has) always been a part of my life,” said Cary, who worked at Burger's Smokehouse in California, Mo., for 32 years. “I’m always searching for the perfect ham. Always looking."
In this year’s competition, 120 of the 215 hams were entered in the open division and 95 in the youth category.
This particular contest looks at country cured hams, a process that dates back to the early days of meat preservation before refrigeration was invented.
Curing takes about seven months, beginning typically in December, Cary said. Choosing a good, raw product to begin with is the key to creating an excellent country ham, he said.
After the raw ham is selected, the cure is applied and the ham is wrapped in paper for about 60 days. Once uncovered, the ham is hung to dry during the spring and summer months.
By July, the heat has brought out the ham's flavor and aroma, just in time to be judged and auctioned at the Boone County Fair.
On Tuesday, Cary rated the meat on a scale of 100 total points, with eye appeal, outside color, smoothness of skin and amount of residue (called fitting), each worth five points; trim and firmness, 10 points each; meatiness, 25 points; and aroma, 35 points.
The first-place and grand-champion titles in the open division went to Kevin Duncan of Columbia, with a total score of 93. Neil Randall's ham won second place and reserve grand champion with a score of 92.
In the youth division, Makensey Rapp of Columbia won first place with a score of 94. Second place went to Paige George of Hallsville, whose ham scored a 93.
The top 39 hams with scores of 88 and more will be available for auction July 31, after the annual ham breakfast in the fair's multipurpose room. Until then, the hams will be displayed in the multipurpose room for public viewing.
Although Cary never found the perfect ham, he admits he was pleased with the overall selection.
“They’re a good set of hams,” he said.