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What Makes A Kentucky Grand Champion Country Ham?

Ham Tables
Dozens of country hams are displayed for judging at the Kentucky State Fair

On Thursday morning, the Kentucky State Fair grand champion country ham will be sold at auction, with proceeds going to charity. The sale is part of the Kentucky Farm Bureau’s long-running ham breakfast.

Last year’s auction raised nearly three million dollars, with the competing sides combining their bids. But the process of picking that grand champion ham actually began a week ago, on the first day of the fair.

Last Thursday, just inside the main entrance to the West Wing of the Kentucky Exposition Center, 49 country hams were displayed across five tables.  At 10 a.m., with a few spectators looking on, Charlie Tripp went to work.

Tripp, from Brownsville, Tennessee, is the sole judge of the Kentucky State Fair country ham competition.

The salted, cured and smoked hams were entered by five Kentucky commercial producers and by individuals. They’re divided into classes for weight and the time of year they were cured.

For the next few hours, Tripp evaluated the hams for shape, color, meatiness and overall appearance. He judged their aroma by probing them with an ice pick and sniffing it. One class of hams was cut open, and Tripp tasted a small slice of the salty meat, after it was microwaved.

After the judging, the Kentucky Agriculture Department’s Lashley Stith signaled it was time to announce the winners, including the best-of-show.

“And now the grand champion commercial ham that will sell next week at the country ham breakfast, comes out of Class 4, Penn’s Country Hams, entry 591, weighing 16.18 pounds," Stith said. "Congratulations."

It’s the third grand champion for family-owned Penn’s Country Hams but the first since 1999. It’s also the first for Blake Penn, who recently took the reins of the Taylor County operation founded by his grandfather in 1959.

“I wasn’t expecting this but it’s a godsend, I love it,” Penn said.

He said producing a top quality country ham is a time-honored tradition that involves the right combination of salt, sugar and spices, smoke — and plenty of patience .

“It’s a lengthy process, you don’t want to skip any corners," he said. "You want to make sure you buy a good product initially — you’re not going to end up with one if you don’t start with one, and take your time. It goes through all the seasons. You start in winter, then we go to springtime, then we go to summertime. We like to leave them in there long enough so that they have good flavor, good smell, we don’t want to rush it. Some people rush it.”

Penn says he’ll savor the moment when his grand champion country ham becomes the center of attention at the Farm Bureau Breakfast.

“It’s crazy. I come from a small town and here’s like [U.S Senator] Mitch McConnell and the governor and Miss Kentucky," he said. "It makes you feel very important, it’s a really good feeling, it brings a lot of spotlight to a small town and a small business that could use the attention.”

As for the ham itself, the buyers will decide where it ends up.  It’s often donated to charity.

Rick Howlett is host of WFPL's weekly talk show, "In Conversation." Email Rick at rhowlett@lpm.org.