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Last weekend we ventured to Lebanon, KY to attend Marion County Ham Days, an annual street festival celebrating one of Kentucky's great regional delicacies, country ham. Each year, the small town of Lebanon swells with over 50,000 hungry festival-goers with their hearts set on the traditional country ham breakfast. It's been forty years since the inaugural Ham Days celebration, just a simple community supper that served six hams to friends and neighbors. Today, volunteers dish out more than 6,000 pounds of pork to locals and visitors. The passing years have added new layers of flourish and fanfare. Ham is just a lingering afterthought faced with the barrage of typical, corporate sponsored festival activities. Now the weekend-long event constitutes a parade, car show, tractor show, sidewalk sale, live music, carnival, craft fair and 5k run.
I am a lover of community festivals. I am so enamored with parades, in fact, that I've been known to inexplicably weep joyful tears at the sight of a marching band. With that said, as a passionate cook, lover of local and regional specialties, and culinary adventurer, I was terribly unimpressed with the ham at Ham Days. I pictured endless displays of prize-winning artisan hams, with their signature outer layers of mold and rosy, pink flesh. Booths featuring rows of hanging hams wrapped in cheesecloth, manned by friendly, flannel-clad Elmer Fudd look-alikes. Perhaps a presentation on the curing process or non-climate controlled aging techniques. Maybe a live ham, errr, I mean pig, as a mascot or something. Instead I spotted only one small table with country ham for sale among a sea of knickknack peddlers. The hog calling contest and $8 country ham breakfast were the only clues pointing to the celebration's honored namesake. Sadly, even the breakfast was kinda bunk. Boiled, bland and bunk.
Well, OK. It is possible that my ham-crazed idealism and food snobbery lead me astray from what my Bluegrass-born heart already knew. This is small town Kentucky, and just because our fancy hams are praised in Bon Appetit and served raw and sliced paper-thin on charcuterie boards at the trendiest restaurants, doesn't mean that a Kentuckian will abandon the time-honored Southern habit of boiling ham to resemble a slab of grey rubber. Especially if said ham is served to 50,000 people under a tent in the center of town.
On the bright side, my disappointment quickly melted away when challenged with friendly smiles, lemon shake-ups, and delightfully tacky flea market wares. (Where else can you shop for bras in bulk, custom air brushed license plates and juggalo belt buckles?) Soon, my ham agenda was replaced with other worthy pursuits: vintage bicycles, hand-stamped leather goods, thoughtfully arranged shop window displays and Lebanon's picturesque Main Street. Also worth note was the town's curiously large number of barber shops, people with eye patches and children on leashes. And of course, the most memorable highlight of Ham Days was catching a glimpse of the festival's special guest, Kentucky's illustrious Turtle Man, a local hero and world-wide YouTube sensation.
This is real: