image via Flickr
The fair is well known for its abundance of preposterous food concoctions (principally fried ____ ), but, believe it or not, there are other culinary aspects of the fair worth considering. The following is a reminiscence of my experiences in the NC State fair baked goods competitions.
2006: We went to the NC state fair last night. Everything was the same as it always is, except for one surprise. After some roasted corn, a picture with the largest pumpkin (664 lbs), a stroll past some of the unusual vegetables (turban squash, snake gourd), a baked potato for my wife, and a stop by the cows being groomed, we went on a mission in search of the baked goods that I had entered into competition. These were: ciabatta bread for “Category W2-301: loaf – yeast with white flour”, lemon apricot scones for “Category W2-319: scones – any flavor/type”, and coconut biscotti for “Category W2-346: cookies – biscotti – any flavor/type”. The entries are displayed in large white well-lit cases (behind glass), arranged on shelves according to category. I could not locate my bread; it may have been in the middle of the top shelf, which was too tall. Maybe they had thrown it away in disgust. My biscotti were there, but its neighbors had taken the prizes. Maybe it was too crunchy! My scones, however, were displayed at the front of the case, along with a large blue ribbon that said “First Premium”! I noticed that mine looked kind of flat and crumbly next to the other entries, of which we later learned there were ten. But, there was a big bite taken out of the scone resting on top of the pile (you must submit 6 scones). A fair official nearby looked up my exhibitor number and confirmed that I had won. She let on that she doesn’t normally eat the foods (I guess she was not one of the actual judges), but that she “loves scones”, presumably explaining the half-eaten one on top. After opening the case so I could have my picture snapped with the ribbon, she encouraged me to enter again next year “with the exact same recipe”. I expect to receive the $10 prize money by the end of next week.
The next year, 2007, I chose to focus on the biscotti category, determined to win the ribbon that had eluded me the previous year. I experimented with a number of recipes, finally settling on pumpkin chai. A fall combination, sure to strike at the sentimentality of the tasters. One of the oddities of the state fair baking competitions is that the entries are judged at least one full day after they have been submitted. And any kid will tell you that the best time to eat a cookie is right out of the oven. So although the deadline for entry is always 12:00 noon on the Wednesday before the fair begins, I was forced, due to work schedules, to prepare my creations on Tuesday night so that I could drop them off early Wednesday morning. I imagine the majority of the entries are baked Wednesday morning to maximize their freshness at the time of tasting, but this was a luxury I would have to work around. My biscotti, of all things baked, would have a lonely day and a half to grow stale and lose its crunch while awaiting the discriminating palettes of the judges. In the end, as I recall there were only a few entries, and I claimed another ribbon, a simpler, more modest white satin affair with the words “Third Place” shining in gold lettering.
My confidence was soaring with two ribbons under my belt. This is easy, I thought, I’ll win a ribbon every year and build up a wildly impressive collection. But 2008 would be different in a number of ways. To begin with, we decided that it would be fun to compete against friends, in addition to those anonymous champion bakers from across the state. In a move of perhaps ridiculous bravado, we enlisted Matt and Tanya Andrews, a husband and wife team who was, of all things, planning to open a bakery (see Yellow Dog Bread Company). The competition would be real to us this year, and we would probably be crushed. We settled on scones as the category of competition, and we went to work as never before creating recipes. Almond cherry, chocolate chocolate chip, cinnamon raisin, cranberry oatmeal, cheddar apple, cheddar chive. Some had eggs and butter, some buttermilk or cream, lemon zest or coarse sugar, amorphous or triangular. It didn’t matter, we had to win. The freezer began to fill with all those extras not required for testing. Finally, we had tried at least one too many, and an outside party was needed, an independent taster to bring focus to our efforts. Our friend Ryan graciously accepted our invitation to stuff his face with scones, and we set about sampling each one (again). We all felt terrible after an hour or so, but we had reached a consensus on the winning formula – the texture of the cinnamon raisin and the flavor of the cherry almond. Easy! It was past 11:00 on Tuesday night. Our entries were due the next day. I plowed through one last batch far too hastily. They came out looking delicious. But we did not win a ribbon for our scones this year, and neither did our baker friends for theirs. What had gone wrong, I wondered. What did the winning scones taste like? Maybe next year I would know.