All eyes — and noses — on the hams

Judges examine hams at the Boone County Fair
Friday, July 20, 2007 | 2:00 p.m. CDT; updated 4:35 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Lance Matheny, 7 of Ashland, lefts his ham to the entry table on Thursday at the Boone County Fairgrounds for the ham show. Judging will take place today.

They arrived in shopping bags and cardboard boxes. Some came in coolers or were pulled in wagons. Others were nestled among towels in laundry baskets, and some were cradled like infants or simply held aloft triumphantly, exposed for all to see. But however they arrived, the hams (and those who spent the last eight months curing them) were here.

Thursday night was the check-in for the annual ham show at the Boone County Fair. As entrants registered their hams and greeted each other, the energy was palpable.

How hams are judged

The criteria by which hams are judged in the Boone County Fair ham show:

Eye Appeal (worth 5 points): Hams should have a pleasing general appearance. Symmetry and conformation are preferred. Outside Color (5 points): A bright, uniform color is desirable. Smoothness of skin (5 points): The ideal ham has a smooth, unwrinkled skin. Fitting (5 points): Hams should not have any undesirable residue. Trim (10 points): Trimming should give the ham a smooth appearance. Firmness (10 points): A ham should be neither overly soft or overly firm. Firmness should be uniform. Meatiness (25 points): The ham should not have excessive fat or bone. Aroma (35 points): There should be no odor that suggests spoilage or contamination.

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“This is the highlight of the fair, you know,” said Joy Gardner, who was busy filling out identification information on scorecards that would be hung from each ham. And she would know because the Gardners have been involved with the fair for at least as long as they’ve been curing hams, since 1945. “The ham breakfast would sell out a month ahead,” she remembered of the early years.

To her left, her husband, Virgil, weighed each incoming ham, calling out the weight in between snaps of his chewing gum.

“The old-timers say this part of Missouri is the best place to cure,” he said. He mentioned how important air was to the dry cure process, adding that the consistency of the average temperatures in Boone County might be one reason why Boone County hams turn out so well.

Andrew Clarke, one of two judges in the ham show, also noted how important air is to the dry cure process, especially when it comes to a ham’s aroma. He likened evaluating a ham’s aroma to evaluating a wine.

“It’s hard to come up with exact language for the desired aroma,” Clarke said. It’s easier to pinpoint what a ham shouldn’t smell like.

“The ham absorbs aromas,” he said, and during the months-long period a ham is hanging up to cure, nearby smells can permeate it, including undesirable odors like livestock and diesel fumes, depending on where the ham is kept. “Placement is obviously important,” he said.

Aroma is the category with the highest point value — about a third of the total score. Clarke and Don Naumann, the other judge, use ice picks to probe the center of the hams, and then smell the picks to determine the ham’s score. It is the one category they judge together.

The quiet of the judging Friday morning stood in stark contrast to Thursday’s bustling check-in. The hams lay out in two rows on several long, low tables and Clarke and Naumann began the judging process by each evaluating a different set of categories. Both are a part of MU’s food science program, although Naumann has retired. When he’s not judging hams, which he has been doing since 1989, Clarke is a processed meat specialist in the department.

“Oh, so you’re the Spam guy,” joked Stan Lynn, who was recording the hams’ scores on a clipboard as Clarke decided them.

“Something like that,” he said.

The ham show draws a variety of exhibitors, including many who are involved in organizations such as 4-H. Gary Fitch is one of the leaders of the ham curing project for Woodlandville 4-H, and he said the project was a popular one for his kids. “It’s tradition around here.”

Once the hams have been cured, the competition begins. Co-chairman Paul Little said 251 hams were entered in this year’s show.

“You never know, you hope to try and do well,” Fitch said of his kids’ hams. “But the main thing is for the kids to learn something.”

Greg Easley has been curing hams since he was a kid and has entered the competition many times. He said he first entered when he was 8 or 9 and continued to compete for several years, but he eventually “got busy with life.” When his daughter started entering as part of 4-H, he was inspired to compete again. He also noted the unpredictable nature of the competition.

“You just never know. Last year we put two in the auction, but the year before we thought we had pretty good hams, and we didn’t get any in. The competition is fierce.”

Clarke and Lynn agreed.

“That many sets of fives we haven’t had in a long time,” Lynn said, referring to the four categories Clarke was working on scoring, all of which are scored out of five. There eight categories in total.

Clarke said that chances of a ham receiving a perfect score are “very, very small,” but the hams were, in general, looking above average this year.

Cody Cook, 13, and a member of Woodlandville 4-H, is excited to see the results. “Coming in and seeing how I did and how my friends did,” he said, is his favorite thing about the ham show.

For others, the ham is its own reward.

Back at the check-in tables, Easley paused from filling out an entry form to waft the air toward his nose, moving his hands and fingers frenetically. “Smell that?” he asked. “That’s my favorite thing about the ham show.

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