One of the many annual highlights at the Missouri State Fair is the Governor’s Ham Breakfast.
While many people come to catch a handshake from an elected official or candidate running for office, others come for one thing and one thing only: the food.
Where that food is produced is another highlight for many who attend the Fair, and especially the contestants who enter the ham, bacon, summer sausage and jerky contests.
“There’s a lot at stake in this competition,” Meat Superintendent Charlie Rosenkrans said Wednesday morning. “I don’t know if a lot of people realize that or not but the champion and the grand champion from the competition are auctioned at the Governor’s Breakfast each year so a lot is riding on these hams.”
Last year Wyatt Stafford’s winning ham in the youth division sold for $6,500, which was donated to the Missouri 4-H by the buyers, Ditzfeld Container and Trash Service and Murphy Brothers Exposition.
That amount is a lot of bacon no matter how you slice it.
“For my students, curing hams or bacon is an opportunity to learn the ag industry in a fairly easy way,” said Matt Bax, Smithton FFA advisor and vocational agriculture instructor. “They have the opportunity to take away a better understanding of the process from beginning to end and they receive hands-on experience of how it works.
“It’s a skill they can take and use their entire life if they want to,” he added.
With 259 hams entered in the youth division of this year’s Fair, judges will spend most of the day selecting the winners from the best of the best.
The judges are experts in their field, according to Rosenkrans, who said some of the individuals had doctorates in meat science from the University of Missouri-Columbia, while others had years of experience owning and operating meat lockers across the state and midwest.
“The judges have a set of eight criteria they use when judging the hams,” Rosenkrans commented. “They look at everything from the firmness and the meatiness of the ham to how it is fitted and trimmed.
“Even things like the eye appeal and the aroma are factors they look at,” he added.
Rosenkrans explained to Missouri State Fair Commissioners, former state Sen. Jim Mathewson and Barbara Hayden, the importance of the aroma factor.
“Many of the students who enter their hams will have competed earlier at local and county fairs,” Rosenkrans said. “When a ham is judged they use an ice pick and make three small holes in the hams so they can smell the aroma they have.
“What they don’t realize is that after they sit for a month or so between those fairs and the State Fair is that a lot of the aroma can escape,” he added. “I always tell them to prepare two hams, one for the local competition and one for the State Fair because it really can make a difference in the outcome.”
Tip such as that are ones Bax said he hopes to pass on to his students. Bax had 27 students who prepared hams or bacon to enter at this year’s Fair.
“Before I started teaching I had never cured a ham or bacon before,” Bax said. “It was something I learned with my students as a class and FFA project. Now my family cures all that we use at home there. It’s not a difficult process and it the taste is something that I can control depending on the amount of salt that is pulled out.”
The competition is something that is open to both young and old, according to Rosenkrans.
“We do have a lot more young people who enter and that’s something we like to see and encourage,” Rosenkrans said proudly. “We really like to see the youth get involved because it’s a skill they can have and take with them for years and generations to come.”
Hope Lecchi can be reached at 660-826-1000 ext. 1484.