Hundreds of early fair-goers get a slice of Boone County ham

Sunday, July 24, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:53 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 13, 2008

Mary Ann and Ken Burgen stood in line at 7 a.m. Saturday with hundreds of other breakfast-goers, eager to have their own slice of famous Boone County country-cured ham.

“I look forward to it because you see so many people,” Mary Ann Burgen said. “I’m curious what the hams will sell for. In fact, I want to buy one.”

The Burgens had never seen hams sold before, so Mary Ann wasn’t sure if the price she was prepared to pay, $50, was a high or low bid. They would have to wait until after the 61st annual ham breakfast at the Boone County Fair to find out this year’s going price.

The man responsible for the Missouri delicacy making its way to the mouths of about 600 breakfast attendees was Philip Schopp, 43.

Schopp normally works for the Norfolk Southern Railroad Company. His father-in-law, Virgil Thurson, is head of the Regional Catering Service, which catered the event.

In preparation for Saturday morning, Schopp had donned an apron and gone without a night’s sleep. The designated cook, Schopp had been hard at work since 10:30 p.m. Friday to get the ham and hash browns cooked in time.

The ham eaten at Saturday’s breakfast was cured with salt, brown sugar and black and red pepper.

Virgil Gardner, former owner of a Boone County country-cured ham business, said that there is nothing about the curing process that makes Boone County hams special.

“It’s the air in this area,” said Gardner, who has shipped his hams as far as Saudi Arabia. According to Gardner, the cool nights and warm days of the curing season give them their exceptional quality.

Quality in hams is something that those who stayed behind for the auction after the breakfast can recognize.

Josh Carter, reserve grand champion of the Boone County Fair ham contest, stood, cell phone in hand, on the stage of the country-cured ham auction. Carter, 16, of Hallsville, was solemn at first, but his smile widened as the bidding increased.

Carter’s fingers worked swiftly on the calculator keypad of the phone. After his ham

sold — at a price of $60 per pound — he walked offstage to his mother, Betty, who was grand champion. He had figured out that the 15-pound prize ham had brought in $900.

Betty Carter beamed at her son. “I was hoping to get little more than a few dollars,” she said humbly about the earnings from her and her son’s hams. Betty Carter’s ham sold for about half that price.

Josh Carter walked over to shake hands with Mike Teel and Billy Burnett, who had bid on his ham and made him a significantly richer young man.

Of the 46 hams auctioned at Saturday’s sale, the highest price per pound was Josh Carter’s. According to Paul Little, vice president of the fair board, the average price per pound for ham auctioned was $20. Little’s wife and two sons accompanied him to the breakfast on Saturday. A self-proclaimed “fair family,” Lynita Little said that they keep coming to the fair to get a helping of “good food and good people,” the simple things in life.

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