[Sca-cooks] OOP: NY Times article on State Fair food competitions

Phil Troy / G. Tacitus Adamantius adamantius.magister at verizon.net
Wed Aug 16 05:49:04 PDT 2006

I was intrigued by the statement that the people that have first-hand  
knowledge on how to pickle a peach are all dying off...


> August 16, 2006
> Pickles, Pies and Blue-Ribbon Biscotti
> THE corn dogs are coming. From Clackamas County in Oregon to the  
> Iowa State Fair, already in full swing, to the Champlain Valley in  
> Vermont, hundreds of state and county fairs will take place between  
> now and Labor Day. Fairgoers will plan their days around lemonade,  
> funnel cakes and pork chops on a stick.
> But they may not find the jars of apple butter and the pickled  
> peaches that their grandparents admired.
> Cooking competitions still thrive on the nation’s fairgrounds  
> despite declining overall attendance at fairs. New contestants of  
> all ages and more men are venturing into the fray, and cash prizes  
> are bigger than ever. But some traditional skills, like canning  
> vegetables and preserving meat, are falling away.
> Taking their place are ambitious new categories, like ones for  
> bagels and biscotti, that would have surprised fairgoers a  
> generation ago. Summoning skills they did not need before, judges  
> in Iowa are critiquing ostrich entrees this week alongside the  
> apple pies and the pork barbecue they have long encountered.
> “Cooking and gardening are almost hobbies now, not necessary for  
> survival as they were when the fairs began,” said Diane Roupe, a  
> longtime judge at the Iowa fair. “But the spirit is just as  
> competitive as it always has been.”
> Eileen Gannon, a senior financial consultant for Smith Barney in  
> Des Moines, has won more than 140 ribbons over the last 20 years at  
> the Iowa fair, including last Thursday’s victory for honey from her  
> beehives. She said new competitors flock to the fair now that  
> cooking has lost its stigma as women’s work, a reputation it had in  
> the early years of the feminist movement.
> “Fifteen years ago I felt like I had to hide my fair work from the  
> office because it would compromise my professional image, but now I  
> send the extra cakes to my clients,” she said. “There is so much  
> more respect for these domestic arts than there was 15 years ago.”
> To draw men into the fray, many fairs have opened men-only baking  
> divisions.
> “We learned that men wanted to enter in baking but were intimidated  
> by the skills of the regular competitors,” said Lyn Jarvis,  
> culinary supervisor of the Champlain Valley Fair in Vermont, which  
> offered its first men-only contest in 1990. “Now they are winning  
> best in show ribbons.” (The Champlain Valley Fair will be held in  
> Essex Junction, Vt., Aug. 26 through Sept. 4.)
> Guy-friendly cooking contests have also begun padding the  
> entertainment schedule at many fairs. Formal judging of canned and  
> baked goods often takes place out of the spotlight, or before a  
> fair begins, but chicken wing cook-offs and barbecue contests have  
> been accepted as spectator sports.
> Next weekend the Dutchess County Fair, which begins on Tuesday and  
> ends on Aug. 27 in Rhinebeck, N.Y., will pit local firefighters  
> against the county sheriff’s department in a hugely popular “Iron  
> Chef”-style cooking contest. (The secret ingredient is locally  
> grown, like apples or corn.)
> And sponsors like King Arthur Flour, Hershey’s cocoa and Vlasic  
> pickles are adopting bigger chunks of the competition, pushing up  
> the prize money: last week Tone Brothers, the spice producer in  
> Ankeny, Iowa, awarded $3,000 for the best cinnamon roll at the Iowa  
> State Fair to Marianne Carlson of Jefferson, Iowa. This year’s  
> overall prize money in the food division is $55,000, the most it  
> has ever been.
> The Iowa fair’s food competition is the biggest one in the country.  
> But the changes are playing out at smaller fairs as well.
> Anne Murray has won three best in show ribbons at the Dutchess  
> County Fair in New York. She has a Ph.D. in engineering and works  
> long hours at I.B.M. in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Having won her first  
> time out with an apricot-filled yeast bread, she said she found the  
> ribbons “addictive” and now competes every year. Ms. Murray grew up  
> in the suburbs of Philadelphia, without much connection to farming.  
> “But my mother made her own jam, and once you taste that you can’t  
> go back,” she said. “A lot of people don’t get that experience  
> anymore.”
> Many of the serious competitors are only a generation or two  
> removed from working farms. Sue Silkworth, a teacher in  
> Poughkeepsie, in Dutchess County, grows much of the fruit for her  
> winning preserves, like her blueberry basil and five-spice rhubarb  
> jams, in a huge kitchen garden rimmed with grapevines that has been  
> in her family for generations. And Jay Trapp, an architect and  
> repeat winner for breads at the same fair, grew up in farm country  
> in South Carolina, “shelling butter beans in front of the  
> television every night,” he said. “That food was made with care — I  
> won’t say love because it sounds too schmaltzy — and it did taste  
> different.”
> Herb Eckhouse, another Iowa native, also sees the fair as a part of  
> a bigger picture: the regeneration of American respect for flavor.  
> “Before Iowa had all this artisanal goat cheese and fancy grass-fed  
> beef and organic dairy, these fairs were already about the bounty  
> of the land and about craftsmanship,” he said.
> Mr. Eckhouse returned to the state in 2004 after spending three  
> years in Parma, Italy, learning to cure prosciutto and pancetta.  
> His company, La Quercia, is sponsoring a contest at the fair. First  
> prize is half a prosciutto, he said. “As hard as McDonald’s tries  
> to push us out of the kitchen, and although this country produces  
> ever greater quantities of undistinguished food, people are waking  
> up to the fact that a lot of our food just doesn’t taste good,” he  
> said.
> The competitors themselves, wherever they stand on American  
> agricultural policy, are in it for the ribbons. “Competing at the  
> fair is like cooking for a dinner party,” Ms. Gannon said. “It’s  
> nice to cook for yourself, but isn’t it more fun to show people  
> what you can do?”
> Having fun is easy; winning is hard. Serious competitors spend  
> hours poring over the exhibitors’ handbooks, creating elaborate  
> strategies and second-guessing their rivals and the judges. “You  
> want to look for categories that the regulars might not enter,”  
> said Terry Jannuzzo, whose chocolate-apricot truffles won a best in  
> class ribbon for candy at Dutchess. “I’m afraid I’ll never win best  
> in show because my pie crusts aren’t good enough, and it’s almost  
> always a pie that wins,” she said, sighing. “The judges love pie.”
> In the more rigorous programs, judges are still home economics  
> teachers or food science faculty members; elsewhere, local  
> television hosts or restaurant owners fill in. Although some fairs  
> have relaxed their standards in the face of declining entries, many  
> judges see themselves as the standard-bearers for all-natural, top- 
> quality, handmade food in America. “These fairs began as education  
> for farmers and farm wives, and we try to honor what they did,”  
> said Ms. Roupe, who has been Iowa’s head canning judge since 2004.  
> (She won 99 ribbons as a competitor before she began judging.)
> Most exhibitors’ handbooks still prohibit shortcuts like graham  
> cracker pie crusts, cake mixes and bread machines, and the Missouri  
> State Fair provides specific written standards that competitors  
> should aspire to. Cakes “should be light, with fine, even texture,  
> moist and velvety but not sticky.” For yeast breads, “flavor should  
> be pleasant with bland nutlike flavor.”
> Cathy Poluzzi, co-chairwoman of the food competition at the  
> Dutchess fair, sees herself as a gatekeeper and a den mother,  
> fielding calls from frantic bakers and novice canners throughout  
> the year. “Canning is the hardest thing to learn from a book, and  
> the women who really knew how to do it are all gone,” she said.  
> “The new ones don’t even know how to choose a peach that won’t turn  
> to mush, poor things.”
> On Saturday this year’s competitors will drop off their entries and  
> leave them to the tender mercies of the judges, who will deliberate  
> behind closed doors. Ms. Poluzzi’s judges are held to a high  
> standard: instead of awarding ribbons, they must give a written  
> critique of each entry that will help competitors correct their  
> mistakes. Overbeating is a common problem, she said, and “check  
> your oven temperature” is the most common critique.
> Ms. Poluzzi, according to those who compete under her, is tough but  
> impartial, and unswayed by frills. Her rules prohibit decorative  
> hats on jars of canned food, cookies more than three inches in  
> diameter and all postbaking toppings, like frostings, glazes and  
> even a dusting of confectioners’ sugar.
> “Oh, yes,” she said. “People try to hide a multitude of sins with  
> icing.”

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