In country ham lore, some names loom large—Broadbent, Benton, Edwards. Now, in Kentucky, there’s another one to add to the list: 4-H. The Cooperative Extension-supported youth-education program is helping preserve the age-old custom of salt-cured meat for a new generation with its Country Ham Project.
It all started in 1999, when the Kentucky Country Ham Curers Association set out to educate teenagers about food science and Bluegrass State tradition. “Each region has a food that is uniquely theirs,” says Dr. Gregg Rentfrow, associate extension professor of meat science at the University of Kentucky, who oversees the project. “Country ham is ours. It’s part of our food heritage.” The Country Ham Project is an eight-month commitment for hundreds of ten-to-eighteen-years-old students, who learn how to cure their own hams and then submit them for competition before a panel of judges at the Kentucky State Fair.
Back in January, over the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day school holiday, participating 4-H’ers put two hams each in a curing combination of salt, sugar, and black and red pepper. Then, the hams hung for 60 days, kept cool by winter weather, in ham houses at County Extension offices around the state. Spring’s warmer temperatures helped equalize the cure throughout the meat. “During the heat of the summer is when the hams—through the breakdown of fats and proteins—develop the characteristic flavor and aroma of a traditional country ham,” Rentfrow says.
This year, kids from more than seventy counties have hams in that “summer sweat” phase as they prepare for the fair. There, judges will choose winners in each age group based on short speeches given by the entrants and quality of their hams, both smoked and non-smoked. (Generally, hams from east Kentucky aren’t smoked while those from the western part of the state are.) More than thirty 4-H’ers will receive ribbons, but even those who don’t win take home two delicious rewards.
“The hams are not cured under USDA meat inspection, so they cannot be sold,” Rentfrow says. “But the parents have told me that the hams have become part of the holiday dinner table along with the main dish at family reunions.”
Read more about the Country Ham Project.