COLUMBIA — Pounds of pork rolled in Sunday afternoon at the Boone County Fair ham show check-in, and ham tagger Stan Lynn laid eyes on them all.
Using a metal tool to attach a white scoring card to each uniquely-shaped ham, Lynn said he can tell which meats will be winners at first glance. Besides tagging, Lynn teases the kids, offering to pierce their noses and asking them to kiss their ham for good luck (none obliged).
The hams will be judged Monday morning for qualities such as meatiness, eye appeal and aroma.
"Ham curing is just something that's been done since our forefathers arrived on the Mayflower. It's how they preserved their meat," Lynn said. "It's been around for years and years."
The curing and aging process starts in the winter — December or January — and takes months, according to a step-by-step guide by the MU Extension. A fresh or "green" ham is rubbed with a curing mix of salt, sugar and various spices, such as paprika and pepper. Then, the ham is hung in a well-ventilated area for the curing and aging process. Mold is scraped off the ham twice before it is ready. The ham is then prepped for show before it arrives at the check-in table and, later, someone's plate.
Lynn said he has been tagging hams at the check-in for "upteenth million years." He has cured hams for the same amount of time.
Now, Lynn teaches kids to cure hams, and his favorite part is helping them out. Lynn said the kids he once antagonized now have kids who pick on him.
Many of the entrants, and obliging subjects of Lynn's teasing, are first-time entrants.
Dawson Wehmeyer, 9, cured his first ham this year, and he thinks his ham will do fairly well. He said it's important to keep curing hams because it tastes good.
"My favorite part was when I got to slather all the paprika on it, and it turned red," Dawson said.
Tanner Daly, 9, said cleaning the hams was his favorite part because it involved brushing off all the mold and bugs.
Tanner said he thinks it's important to learn how to cure hams so the tradition of curing can live on. It's Tanner's first year curing a ham, and he thinks it will do pretty well.
Others, though young, are ham-curing veterans.
Brother and sister duo Parker West, 16, and Karsyn West, 13, have entered the Boone County Fair ham show since they first started curing eight and five years ago, respectively.
Karsyn's dad taught her the craft, and Parker's aunt taught him. Karsyn and Parker said they like curing hams because it's fun, and they like to eat them.
For the Crane and Hamilton families, curing hams is a family affair. Brooke Crane and Mike Hamilton are brother and sister-in-law. The two brought each of their kids to enter their hams. Carter Hamilton, 10, said it's important to keep curing hams because some people don't know about it.
Ryan Rounsavall, 10, who brought her hams to the check-in in a red wagon, won a blue ribbon in 2012 and expects her ham to do pretty well this year.
"My favorite part is actually putting the cure on because that's when you do most of the work," Ryan said. She said curing hams is important because a cured ham has a different flavor.
"It's fun to do and it's easier to do than (raising) livestock. It's really great for first years in 4-H," Ryan said.
Elaine George, leader of the Hallsville 4-H Club, taught Ryan and many others at the check-in how to cure hams.
George and her husband cure about 250 hams a year. She started curing when she was a part of 4-H when she was a kid. Her dad taught her the process.
"(Ham curing) is important because this started many years ago, and we hate to see the dying arts fade away," George said. "It's also a good history lesson for kids to see how things have changed since refrigeration."
Lynn said that even if the ham doesn't win, the kids still get to eat the meat. His remark was met with echoes of agreement, saying eating the hams is even better than winning.
Supervising editor is Mary Ryan.