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Thursday, Aug. 20, 2009 01:09 pm

Judging the fair culinary contest

Tough job, but somebody has to do it

Beverly Beckett working on her entry, a Rum Pecan Ring, for the Yeast Bread Contest at the Illinois State Fair.
The fairgrounds are bustling in the days before the Illinois State Fair opens, and no location is busier than the culinary division in the Hobby, Arts, and Crafts Building. On Friday is cleaning and set up. On Sunday and Monday, contestants’ entries are checked in. Tuesday and Wednesday the items are judged, then put on display for opening day.

If that doesn’t seem like much, consider this: There are seven adult divisions for which the entries must be submitted and judged prior to fair opening; except for canned goods, the junior competition has parallel divisions. Largest is Division One, baked products, with nine sub-categories; only two sub-categories have a single contest. Every entry must be tasted, and its attached recipe read; each sub-category is awarded a first, second and third prize.

The quick bread sub-category has nine contests: plain coffeecakes; coffeecakes with additions; nut, zucchini, banana, pumpkin, miscellaneous fruit, and miscellaneous other breads; bran, blueberry, and miscellaneous muffins; and biscuits. Each of those winners in those compete for the Best Quick Bread; that winner is pitted against the Best Yeast Bread for the Best Bread prize.

There are 23 different cookies contests, four cake sub-categories, and pastry. The other divisions are 2) Decorated Projects, 3) Candies, 4) Jellies, Preserves, Jams, Marmalade and [Fruit] Butters, 5) Canned Fruits and Vegetables, 6) Pickles, Sauces, and Relishes, and 7) Diabetic. Whew!

On Tuesday, three two-judge teams begin tasting their way through it all. “All my judges have to have been Family and Consumer Sciences teachers (a.k.a Home Economics) or have food-related backgrounds,” says Culinary Superintendant Billye Griswold of White Hall.

Retired Calhoun County FCS teacher Susan Dierker-Becker is working her way through the Jr. division entries with her sister, Diane Onken, who makes wedding cakes. “Everybody gets a ribbon and positive comments in Juniors,” says Dierker-Becker. Onken and Dierker-Becker are having fun, but also are serious about their task, as are all the judges. There are specific criteria and rules; judges frequently consult the standards book. Onken and Dierker-Becker are working through plates of cookies. Appearance is judged before tasting, and that becomes problematic. Cookies are supposed to be only 2 inches in diameter. While the pair aren’t using a ruler, substantially larger cookies are disqualified.

Kathy Lemme and Linda Schilling are judging quick breads. They chuckle when reading a recipe for the Clabber Girl Baking Powder contest; the recipe specifies a rival brand. No prize for that one!

Carol Schlitt and Donna Falconnier from U of I Home Extension offices in, respectively, Edwardsville and Champaign, have drawn cake duty. “This is a perfect carrot cake,” says Falconnier. “It’s just exactly what carrot cake should be.” She sets a slice aside: “That’s for my 92-year-old mother.” As they begin tasting pies, an assistant talks about two cousins who rarely see each other, but meet each year at the fair culinary competition, bringing pies in honor of their grandmother; afterwards it turns out one of them won this year’s blue ribbon for best crust.

It’s a sugar high, not just for the judges, but also for the assistants shuttling entries back and forth. Some are official, others are spouses who’ve come for sweet rewards: the remains of the judging samples set out on tables for all to enjoy, including outside clued-in fair workers.

By Wednesday’s end, the first judges leave, but Griswold and her assistants aren’t through. Eighteen special culinary contests throughout the fair are sponsored by organizations or companies. Entries are brought in for same-day judging; including Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance’s Family Heirloom Recipes, American Egg Board’s Breakfast on a Stick [!!], Spam’s “Effortless Main Dish, Fleischmann’s Bake for the Cure, and The Anton and Helen Holas Meat Loaf Contest.

The biggest event is the Illinois Blue Ribbon Culinary Contest, which takes place onstage every fair day except Sundays, at nine and again at noon. “Actually, everybody onstage is already a winner,” says Griswold. That’s because contestants must submit recipes in advance. No mixes or pre-measured ingredients are allowed. Categories are Cakes, Pies, Yeast Breads, Baked Dairy Desserts, Chicken, Beef and Pork. An expert team studies the recipes in advance and decides which qualify; those are published in a booklet that’s sold onsite. There are different judges each day; the tasting is blind.

Many Blue Ribbon contestants have competed for years, and in multiple categories. This is Amy Wertheim’s 16th fair as a Blue Ribbon contestant; she began entering fair food contests at age eight. “It’s a fun group,” she says. “Everybody knows everybody, and newcomers are welcomed like family.” They’re competing, but contestants help each other, lending ingredients and equipment. (The fair supplies ovens, refrigerators, sinks and tables; contestants have to bring all other equipment.) “There’s always some kind of mixup,” Wertheim laughs, recalling the time her son Nick assured her he’d checked that everything was packed, only to discover at the fairgrounds that “everything” was only the equipment; not a single ingredient was in the car. “The Sangamon Avenue Schnuck’s people see us once a year,” she says, “But they know why we’re there, and greet us like long-lost friends.” Wertheim, who has a full-time Bloomington job as well as working in her family’s Atlanta candy company (see “A Tasty Visit to Candyland” in IT’s 12/11/08 issue at www.illinoistimes.com), says the contest relaxes her. “I take a vacation week, and tell Nick ‘this is my time.’”

On the last Saturday, the winners in each category will compete for the Blue Ribbon Champion title. Then it’s time for Griswold, her assistants and the competitors to get some rest. But before long, they’ll begin planning for next year.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.
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