For people like Elaine George, the Boone County Fair cured ham show is a family tradition. This year, George’s 6-year-old great-grandson entered the competition along with three of her grandchildren and three of her children. In George’s family, ham curing begins in December.
A basic cure combines salt for preservation and sugar to offset saltiness. Other ingredients, such as pepper and cloves can be added for flavor, though George’s family does not use cloves.
George, who is chair of the event and an over 35-year member of 4-H, said her family’s hams are coated in cure and hung until May 1, when cure that didn’t penetrate is cleared from the meat.
Then, the hams are hung again and taken down three weeks before competition season begins in June.
The day before the competition, the ham is cleared of remaining cure — scraped of mold and pepper — and prepped for presentation.
“You want them as clean as you can get them,” George said.
Any lingering mold or wrinkles can detract from a ham’s score at the fair. On Monday morning, this year’s 185 entries were set up in rows on folding tables lined with butcher paper.
Stan Lynn, a member of the Boone County Fair Ham Committee, and George took turns recording as Andrew Clarke, event judge and associate professor of food science at MU, moved through the aisles of tables, calling out scores for eye appeal, outside color, skin smoothness, fitting, trim, firmness and meatiness.
“Four. Four. Five. Three. Seven. Nine. Twenty-Two,” he told Lynn for ham No. 88.
The first four categories are scored out of five. Meatiness is given up to 25 points, and trim and firmness are weighted at 10 points each.
Firmness scores of 10 are just right. Clarke presses on the hams with his thumbs and index fingers to test whether the hams are over-dried and too hard or, oppositely, not dried enough and too soft.
“There are different styles of ham preparation and trimming and so forth that contribute to eye appeal,” Clarke said.
It is the most difficult category to judge because it’s more subjective, he said.
After Clarke rates the open division hams on the first seven criteria, he rates their aroma. He sticks an ice pick into the hock, waves it under his nose and decides quickly.
Unacceptable aromas are easy to spot and score, Clarke said. For example, a rotten ham can smell like rotten eggs.
One ham, a darker brown than the other 184, is smoked and has a richer smell than the others.
“Smells every bit as dark as it looks,” Clarke said.
There were three smoked hams in Monday’s competition. Aroma carries the most weight, up to 35 points out of 100 total.
“In 30-some odd years, I would predict I’ve given about 10 35s,” Clarke said. “Thirty-fives are truly exceptional.”
The majority of this year’s hams score in the aroma range of 30 to 32.
“That usually means that they would score well at a state fair,” Clarke said.
The Missouri State Fair process is similar but is judged on a 1,000-point basis, Clarke said. Before entering the Boone County Fair, contestants can indicate whether they are going to enter the ham in more competitions. Even if those hams score well, they won’t be among the top 40 scheduled to be auctioned off after the ham breakfast Saturday morning.
In the past, hams have sold for over $1,000. The top 10 hams will be auctioned first, followed by eligible youth hams and then eligible open-division hams.
Any hams not sold at the auction will be given back to their owners, and unclaimed hams will be donated to The Food Bank for Central & Northeast Missouri.