The first of four Minnesota State Fair cooking contest drop-offs was yesterday and the line of competitors didn’t disappoint. I chatted with a twenty-something about her savory mini-pies (a pretty tater tot hotdish-inspired dish with Mexican flavors) and her boyfriend’s caramel apple dessert pie. I met a former Pillsbury Pie Blue Ribbon Winner who, according to new by-laws, can no longer compete in any Pillsbury Pie competition. She was toting some gorgeous turtle cookies for Ghiradelli’s Bite-Sized Championship and peered through the window of my pastry box to scrutinize my tiny mocha donuts. We compared baking notes. (Her trick to successful pie crust? Apple cider vinegar.)
Cindy, the Blue Ribbon Group representative I met last year, recognized we former ribboners and I told her how much I love their New Entrant Award, which will go to someone new to Fair competition. Cindy told us that they want to encourage amateur bakers who have never competed before, and that the rule about first place winners never being allowed to compete in that particular division again was, also, to encourage new competitors. Too many repeat winners scare off possible competitors, she said.
Last year in the big Sunday drop-off line some of my fellow bakers grumbled about past winners being a bunch of former Home Ec teachers, “They shouldn’t be allowed to compete in the amateur contests.” One woman, when hearing I’d won a blue ribbon earlier in the week and that I work at the University of Minnesota, turned to me with a pointed finger and an accusatory tone, “Are you a nutritionist?”
I get it, I really do. But there is something rather quaint about the elderly ladies who come back to collect their ribbons year after year. They remind me of a time when every neighborhood had some woman known for her cake (or biscuits or bread or pickles), and every small town had a guy who refused to share his recipe for amazing sausage (or biscuits or bread or pickles). Those repeat ribbon winners are characters who add to the legend and allure of The Fair.
Maybe I’ll feel differently when diminutive firecracker “Blue Ribbon Baker” Marjorie Johnson beats me in all of my categories. I snapped a shot of her as I was leaving the the Creative Activities Building and asked her about her dessert. “Strawberry Pie,” she told me. Ah, her strawberry concoction will kick the snot out of my Nordic Puff Pie.
“No savory entree?” I asked. Marjorie squished up her face in disgust and shook her head no. Phew, less competition for my Savory Pumpkin Pie. Then I remembered the pretty Mexican-hot dish pies and imagined them in the showcase bannered in blue. And I thought about the endless lines of people dropping off their creations during this week before The Fair begins. Seems to me there are plenty of folks willing to enter their creations, ribbon or not.
I walked across the Fairgrounds back to my office, an insider privy to pre-Fair activity. Seventies rock wafted between the dings of nailing and drilling. Burly guys unloaded trucks, weathered carnie-types constructed booths. Everyone waved at me with friendly smiles. Two State Fair guys installed signage outside of Heritage Square. “How’s it look from the street?” they asked me. I gave them a big thumbs up. In her early stages of preparation The Fair already feels pretty darned good to me.