It's murder inside the refreshment stand. Chicken is sizzling in a tub of grease, servers are rushing to and fro with baskets of french fries and glasses of lemonade, and a crowd is lined up at least five deep at the counter. Big fat flies whiz maniacally overhead.

And in the middle of it all, calmly standing over a sputtering black grill with two spatulas, is Mike Bryant. His job is tending to the star of the Burkittsville Ruritan Club's annual carnival, a delicacy served up for more than 40 years in the rural Maryland town. It's country-cured ham, and to people in Frederick County, to talk about it is to praise it.

"This is why people come out here," said Bryant, slapping thin circles of meat onto the grill. Working two spatulas, Bryant explained that some people like the meat just warmed a little, and others want it like shoe leather.

But no matter how it comes off the grill, it still imparts an unusual taste acquired through a curing process that dates back decades, even centuries.

"If you could trace it, it might go back to colonial days or Civil War days or even before that," says Bryant, a Middletown resident who works as a solar energy technician at BP Solar in Frederick.

But the ham, which long ago became a centerpiece of church picnics, firehouse fundraisers and county fairs, was nearly taken off the menu last year, after the county Health Department questioned the safety of the club's age-old curing process.

Only after the club agreed to alter its practices, send members to an eight-hour session on food preparation, buy a $5,000 refrigeration unit and send samples from the hams to a laboratory in Annapolis was the tradition allowed to continue. Club members, however, still chafe at regulations and inspections that they see as unnecessary.

"If nobody's gotten sick in 40-some years, why do we need all these regulations?" asked Randy Huffer, who is the Burkittsville Ruritan Club's secretary. Huffer, 54, of Broad Run, said the total inspection tab amounts to the price of about five hams, which is a lot for a service club that plows all the money back into the community. "I think it's about giving somebody jobs. And money."

The controversy has stirred such passions that members of the county's General Assembly delegation pushed unsuccessfully for a bill this year to exempt fundraising organizations from certain requirements in health inspections.

Barbara Brookmyer, Frederick County's health officer, said that after health inspectors learned last summer about fundraising organizations processing meat and offering it to the public, they had no choice but to take action.

An improperly cured ham, she said, could expose large numbers of people to potentially life-threatening illnesses. In 1997, for instance, nearly 700 people suffered food poisoning after eating stuffed ham at a St. Mary's County dinner.

Brookmyer could recall no such ham-related episodes in Frederick and pointed out that, this year, seven organizations in the county prepared 552 hams, or enough to serve about 17,000 people.

To members of the Burkittsville Ruritan Club, the inspections are now something to be endured. But they also are seen as another sign of change in a county that has become more of a suburb in the past decade. The trouble started last year when Huffer met with a Health Department inspector to obtain permits for the carnival. All was in order, until he got to the ham.

"She said, 'Where do you get your country ham from?' And I said, 'We cure our own,' " Huffer recalled. "Her eyes got big. She said, 'You cure your own?' "

After checking with her boss, she told Huffer the hams could not be sold. "It takes a lot to get me mad. But I was mad," Huffer said.

Calls went out to county commissioners. Even Nelson Sabatini, the state's health secretary, became involved before the controversy was resolved.

Sam Crone chuckled as he and Huffer recalled the convoy of health officials from Baltimore and Annapolis who showed up to discuss the situation. At least one city inspector showed a dim understanding of a hog's anatomy.

"He said, 'How many hams were on a hog?' " Crone recalled. "I thought, 'Now that guy doesn't know much about a hog.' "

Crone, 82, who was one of the club's original members when it was chartered in 1953, said he remembers when they butchered their first hogs nearly 45 years ago. Back then, the club members raised, butchered and cured the hogs on their farms.

By the late 1960s, health officials decreed that the animals had to be slaughtered at licensed slaughterhouses and examined by federal inspectors. But the rest of the practice remains almost the same.

First, the hams are rubbed with a seasoned paste of salt, black pepper, red pepper and brown sugar and stored on hardwood slabs. After that, they are hung in netlike stockings for 45 days.

By summer, the ham is ready for the club's annual carnival. The meat, which is shaved very, very thin, looks and tastes nothing like grocery store ham. Instead of being pink, watery and soft, the meat is dark, lean and pleasantly chewy.

"You've come to the best," said Vonnie Parker, 68, a retired teacher who was getting a jump on the evening crowd by preparing a few dozen ham sandwiches on an afternoon last week. "People flock here for the ham sandwiches."

The club sells about 200 baked ham sandwiches each night, and about twice as many with fried ham. The dish is so popular that one of the hams is the fifth-place prize in the club's raffle, just behind a scale model of Dale Earnhardt's No. 3 race car.

Everyone talks about how good it tastes, how bad it is for them or, usually, both.

At the Burkittsville Ruritan Club's annual carnival, Mike Bryant fries the country ham, which the carnival has dished up for decades. Alex Bondarenko enjoys a ham sandwich. About 200 baked ham sandwiches and 400 fried ham sandwiches are sold each night. Sinking their teeth into the country-cured ham are, counterclockwise from right: Emma Axline, Wanda Zombro, Karen Bolen and Lauren Bolen. The delectable dish is a mainstay of church picnics, firehouse fundraisers and county fairs.While carnival-goers attend to their plates at tables next to a cornfield, Blair Dillow holds Katie Stewart as they wait for their food. Many people are drawn by the country-cured ham, a mainstay of church picnics, firehouse fundraisers and county fairs.