Smithfield Herald

Ham & Yam Festival putting emphasis on food

Susan Law holds her granddaughter, Ruby Wagner, during a pony ride at the Ham & Yam festival in 2013.
Susan Law holds her granddaughter, Ruby Wagner, during a pony ride at the Ham & Yam festival in 2013. FILE PHOTO

Smithfield will celebrate its 30th Ham & Yam Festival this weekend with a 1980s theme and even more ham and sweet potatoes than last year.

The festival’s music headliners are 1980s tribute band The Breakfast Club on Friday night and Who’s Bad: The Ultimate Michael Jackson Tribute Band on Saturday.

For the first time, all food vendors will have to offer at least one ham or sweet potato item; the lineup includes the traditional – ham biscuits – and the novel, such as sweet potato-flavored kettle corn, cookies, ice cream and funnel cake.

The festival opens Friday night with two concerts and continues from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, with two more concerts that night. During the day on Saturday, more than 150 other vendors will line Johnston and surrounding streets, offering food, arts and crafts, and information from nonprofits, businesses and county agencies.

“It really is an event where you can learn so much about your community, you can support your community and it’s just fun for free,” said Sarah Edwards, the festival’s chief organizer and interim director of the Downtown Smithfield Development Corp.

“There’s a lot of activity packed into a two-day span,” she added.

The annual 4-H barbecue cook-off will continue as usual, with chefs firing up their cookers Friday night. Judges will pick the winners Saturday morning, and the barbecue will be ready to eat by lunchtime.

Children will be able to careen down inflatable slides, though parents will have to buy tickets for those.

Elementary-aged kids can enter the “What’s that Yam Thing?” contest by decorating a sweet potato. Notable entries have included a crab, Angry Birds and Taylor Swift, Edwards said.

“It's always interesting to see what they come up with,” she said.

Kids can drop off their edible art between 3 and 6 p.m. Friday or 8:30 and 9:30 a.m. Saturday at the corner of Second and Johnston streets. Anyone can enter the contest, but ribbons will go only to elementary-age kids. All children who enter will receive a free movie ticket from the Howell Theater.

A Relay for Life team is selling tickets for a rubber duck race on the Neuse River, and Circle C Farms in Newton will bring its Hogway Speedway Racing Pigs for races throughout the day.

The Johnston Health Champions 5K run will step off at 9 a.m. Kids can run in a shorter Dash for Health.

In “Pulling for a Cause,” groups of five will try to pull a heavy-duty truck and 25-foot boat for 50 yards. Their entry fees will go to the Law Enforcement Torch Run for the Special Olympics.

On the Town Commons stage, Girlz Girlz Girlz, an Atlanta-based rock group, will perform at 6 p.m. Friday. The Breakfast Club will take the stage at 8. On Saturday, rock and pop group Neon Radio will play at 6 p.m., with Who’s Bad: The Ultimate Michael Jackson Tribute Band following at 8.

On Saturday, two more stages will be set up, one on Second Street and one on Third Street, with performances throughout the day by local choirs and dance teams. Also, the Red Cross will hold a blood drive on Saturday.

Edwards said the Ham & Yam Festival is an important fundraiser for nonprofits across the county. The festival also brings people to Smithfield, and the hope is that those visitors will return to downtown Smithfield and spend their money there, she said.

In the future, Edwards hopes to focus on the food part of the festival and possibly bring back a sweet potato cooking contest. “There’s such a foodie community out there, and because these products are local, it really is nice to showcase local business and local farms,” she said.

The festival will go on even if it rains. People can park for free in downtown Smithfield.

30 years

The Ham & Yam Festival started in 1985 as a competition between ham producers in Smithfield, N.C., and Smithfield, Va. Since then, it has grown to bring about 25,000 to 30,000 people to Smithfield each year, Edwards said.

Wingate Lassiter, then editor of the Smithfield Herald, helped start Ham & Yam. He said an idea for the festival came from an annual tobacco celebration that started in the 1950s but waned in popularity in the 1960s. Then, Smithfield had its bicentennial celebration in 1977, and people said, “We ought to have something every year,” Lassiter recalled.

Eventually, that led to Ham & Yam, though Lassiter said he’s not sure who came up with the name. The goal was to bring the community together while promoting two of its main agricultural products.

One reason the festival has endured, Lassiter said, is that people enjoy putting it on. “That goes back to the bicentennial,” he said. “People, they didn’t call it a party, but people just like to have fun and even though it was lot of work, people just enjoyed seeing this all happen and seeing all these people come in here.”