SMITHFIELD The Ham & Yam Festival had another good year, bringing thousands of people from around the Triangle to downtown Smithfield.
The festival started 29 years ago as a friendly competition between the town and its Virginia namesake – Smithfield, Va., another major ham producer. It has grown into one of the county’s biggest events. This year even included a performance by a national act, country music singer and “American Idol” finalist Casey James, who performed Saturday evening.
Judy Sasser, who was selling baked yams to festival-goers on Front Street, recalled when Ham & Yam was a small-time affair. “It’s grown, and there’s a greater variety of vendors,” she said. “It used to be just this little street.”
Saturday’s stretched from the Neuse River to Fourth Street, with three stages for live music. Highlights included pony rides, a 5k run, charity raffles and, of course, food.
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Chris Johnson, director of the Downtown Smithfield Development Corp., said two things have contributed to the boom in recent years.
First, DSDC decided to shrink the event from an entire weekend to just Saturday. But the budget has remained the same, allowing organizers to maximize the festival’s one day, Johnson said.
“Applying all those funds to one big-name act – it’s really worked out well for us,” he said.
About four years ago, Stevens Sausage signed on as a corporate sponsor, which gave the event some funding stability. In the past, DSDC had to raise the money itself, and the prospect of low turnout or bad weather made it a risky investment.
The corporate sponsorship worked out particularly well when the recession hit. “In this economy, we’ve raised more through sponsorship than we ever have,” Johnson said.
Johnson was especially pleased with the musical lineup, which, besides Casey James, also included The Farm, an Ashville-based country band.
But Ham & Yam is also about celebrating the county’s agricultural heritage, and food remains center stage. On Saturday, festival-goers could take home raw sweet potatoes for free.
There was no shortage of pork, either. The barbecue cook-off attracted a strong field of cooks, including John Kearney of Goldsboro.
Kearney, owner of Haulin’ Hog Cooking and Catering in Goldsboro, won his fifth Ham and Yam cook-off; it was also his second straight win. Kearney couldn’t share his secret with the public. “I don’t know how to explain it,” he said.
Kearney will compete in 12 cook-offs across the state this year, and he said Ham & Yam draws particularly strong cooking teams. “It’s Eastern North Carolina barbecue at its best,” he said.
Pigs were a source of entertainment, too. Newton-based Hogway Speedway once again held pig races that drew throngs families with young children. This year’s shows also included goats and Indian runner ducks. “It’s entertainment people never get tired of,” said owner Brent Cook.