By: Bruce Schreiner
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) _ Pork and politics were the main courses Thursday at the Kentucky Country Ham Breakfast, where a prized slab of meat on a silver platter can still steal the show.
The 50th annual event, showcasing the state’s agricultural sector, brought together Democrats and Republicans, city slickers and rural folk. They munched on country ham, scrambled eggs and biscuits. The state’s top political leaders spoke, followed by what many consider the main event: auctioning the state fair’s grand champion ham.
“Enough with the small talk. Let’s have an auction,” auctioneer Danetta Allen told the sellout crowd of 1,600, which included politicians, university presidents, business executives and lobbyists.
The 13.3-pound ham, produced by Harper’s Country Hams in Clinton, Ky., was presented on a silver platter adorned with red roses. It was showcased by the reigning Miss Kentucky, Jenna Day, who carried the platter among the bidders to give them a close look at the prized meat.
Bidding started at $1 and hands shot up across the convention hall. The bidding soon turned serious and soared into six-figure territory.
The winning bid of $350,000 _ amounting to about $26,315 per pound _ came from the Yum Brands Foundation, the charitable arm of fast-food company Yum Brands Inc., which is headquartered in Louisville. It was the third-highest offer ever from a single bidder and the fifth-highest bid in the auction’s history.
Foundation manager Angela Osting said it was her first time at the event, and she came away claiming the expensive slab of pig meat.
“It was much more exciting, much more exhilarating than I ever imagined possible,” she said.
The money goes to the charity of the winning bidder’s choice. The foundation chose the Fund for the Arts, a Louisville-based group that will use the money to allow Kentucky children to see orchestra and theater performances, said Barbara Sexton Smith, the arts group’s president and CEO.
The ham itself will be donated to a local food bank, Osting said.
Over the decades, the ham auctions have raised more than $6.8 million for dozens of charities, educational institutions and non-profit groups. The first-ever auction brought a $124 winning bid _ an amount that wouldn’t even garner a slice of the prized ham now. The average price of the auctioned hams in the past decade is nearly $545,000.
Mark Lynn, an optometrist whose company owns optometry stores in a half-dozen states, has been a winning bidder twice but never took a bite of the hams he won. Last year, he won the bidding at $300,000, and in 2010 he was the co-winner with Republic Bank and Trust, with each splitting the record $1.6 million bid.
“I don’t know if I could bring myself to eat an $800,000 ham,” Lynn said. “Every cost per bite, I’d be thinking about it. I’d rather it all go to a good cause.”
Jack Crowner, a longtime agricultural broadcaster who served as the event’s auctioneer from 1964 until the mid-2000s, said the first ham breakfast drew a few dozen people at a restaurant near the state fairgrounds. It quickly outgrew the eatery and now takes place at the South Wing of the Kentucky Exposition Center at the fairgrounds. The event is sponsored by Kentucky Farm Bureau.
Larry Cox, who attended his first ham breakfast in 1972, said the breakfast has become a can’t-miss event for many of the state’s most influential people. It’s a place to make or strengthen connections while mingling in the hallway or sharing breakfast, he said.
“They simply want to be here to shake hands, to be seen and to be introduced,” said Cox, a former state directo
r for Sen. Mitch McConnell.
The speakers included McConnell, Sen. Rand Paul and Gov. Steve Beshear. Congressmen and state lawmakers were among the throngs in the audience.
Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, said it’s a chance to “see all the movers and shakers in the state.” He called it a purely Kentucky event with the servings of country ham and other traditions that coincide with the state fair.
“All this needs is bourbon,” he said.