August 22, 2001 | By: Barbara Hall, 4-H Junior Press Corps

A group of eager-looking 4-H members and parents waited anxiously on wooden benches parallel to four long tables upon which sat 61 cured hams.

Three judges slowly made their way down the tables, stopping at each ham to examine the meat with forks. Their job was to determine which ham was the best of at the 2001 4-H Kentucky State Fair Ham Judging Contest.

4-H members throughout the state spend several months preparing their hams for the fair, where their meat is judged by commercial country ham producers according to its smell, taste, roundness, color, and texture.

This is only the 4-H contest's second year. Benjy Mikel, coordinator of the contest, said commercial country ham producers suggested the idea.

Ham curing is an intricate, lengthy process. First, the ham is rubbed with a mixture of seven and a half pounds of salt, two and a half pounds of sugar, and one and a half ounces of nitrite. The ham is placed into a stocking-like bag to hang for thirty to forty days. After curing, the ham is smoked with hickory for eight to 12 hours.

Contestant Craig Chaney, 16, said the desired color is a dark pinkish-brown. The color of the meat indicates the quality of the smoking. If smoked too long, the hams may acquire air pockets. After smoking, the ham is again hung to cure for another thirty to forty days and is then trimmed and washed.

Because of the large number of hams entered in the contest, several of the contestants were not overly optimistic about their chances. Eleven-year-old cousins Hannah Osborne and Kate Bomar, from Allen County, simultaneously cured their hams. Osborne commented, "I don't think it will win because so many other hams have been entered."

Roberta Anderson, 13, said her Lincoln County 4-H group stored and cured its hams at the University of Kentucky. Having visited the campus several times over a period of three months to initiate various steps in the curing process, the group retrieved the meat from UK before trimming and washing it at Lincoln County High School.

"I think we've got a pretty good chance of winning. The other teams' hams look better, but our speeches could surpass theirs," said Jesica Anderson, 17, Lincoln County.

While the examination of the meat took place, each contestant gave a five-minute to seven-minute speech about the curing process and what they learned from the experience.

Winning grand champion honors was Miranda Tarry, 16, of Barren County, whose ham received 882 points out of 1,000. Tarry said she believes her ham scored high because of her knowledge of ham curing. Last year, Tarry won Grand Reserve Champion in the speech section of the Ham Judging Contest. This year, she cured her ham at Clifty Farm in Allen County.

When her 4-H County Extension Agent mentioned the competition two years ago, she jumped at the interesting opportunity. "Not only did I improve my speaking and presentation abilities in the contest, but I participated in something interesting and different," Tarry said.