Thousands of Americans nationwide go for the blue — ribbon, that is — in state fair food contests.
Jim Woodworth is one of those home cooks who enter the cooking competitions each year with a healthy case of ribbon lust.
They call him "The Pie Guy" in Pueblo West, Colo. And for good reason. To keep his Colorado State Fair blue-ribbon-winning chops, Woodworth bakes pies year-round. But at 4 a.m. Aug. 22, he gets serious. At that early hour, Woodworth will be elbow-deep in pie crust, baking the pies he'll enter in this year's fair. He'll start with pumpkin, move on to mincemeat, berry and peach before finishing sometime in the afternoon with his prize-winning cherry and apple pie recipes.
"The apple are my favorite," said the 82-year-old, rattling off his recipe for a honey-sweetened version with three kinds of apples that has won many blue ribbons.
Will it win again? "I hope so," he chuckled. "This year may be my last at the fair, and I'm kind of competitive."
While some contests offer big prizes from food-company sponsors (Hormel, Fleischmann's, Hershey's), most winners only get modest monetary awards in the $5 to $10 range.
"So it's really more about that ribbon!" said Barb Schaller, of Burnsville, Minn., whose corn relish has won her a blue ribbon eight times at the Minnesota State Fair, plus a (mock) marriage proposal from
Evon Fuerst, of Renton, Wash., a blue-ribboned jam- and jelly-maker who competes in the Puyallup State Fair, agrees: "I love that goofy little rush you get going up to the case to see if you got a ribbon."
In many households, state fair food fever is contagious, with ribbon-winning cooks passing their skills and competition craving on to their kids, and grandkids.
So who enters what? Today's fair food contests are hugely varied. Far from the handful of competitions of the late 1800s, today's culinary "divisions" and "classes" number in the hundreds at each fair.
has the most, with 869 food classes, according to Lori Chappell, marketing director for the Iowa State Fair. There are meatloaf contests, scone contests, crepe, conserve and cake contests, potato salad and pickle contests, bar cookies and beer contests — almost anything you can imagine.
Blue-ribbon winning recipes paint an evolutionary and regionally varied portrait of America's favorite tastes. In
, where bourbon is big, the bourbon balls division is a ruling class. In
, barbecue contests burgeon. And in
, recipes from the "Finest Blackberry Pie in Oregon" contest are iconic for that state.
But most popular nationwide? "It's really the basic, tried and true recipes that attract the most entries: cookies, pies, cakes, quick breads, pickles and jams," said Patrice Harris, director of public relations for the Wisconsin State Fair, summing up sentiment from other state fair organizers.
If you're hankering to attend a fair, check the links to all official state fair sites at statefairdates.com.
Honey apple pie
Prep: 40 minutes Cook: 1 hour Makes: 8 servings
Jim Woodworth started entering his pies — such as this multiple blue-ribbon winner — in the Colorado State Fair in the mid '90s. In his second year in competition, so many of Woodworth's 150 entries won ribbons that he was crowned King of the Kitchen. It was a gender-busting moment: "In
, they'd never had a man win the contest before," said Woodworth, pointing to a silver prize bowl incongruously etched "Queen of the Kitchen."
5 to 6 small Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, sliced
2 medium each, peeled, cored, sliced: Pink Lady apples, Golden Delicious apples
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon allspice
½ cup honey
2 cups flour
2 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon each: salt, baking powder
¾ stick (6 tablespoons) vegetable shortening
1 egg, beaten slightly
2 to 3 tablespoons ice water
1 teaspoon vinegar
1 Place Granny Smith apples in a steamer basket; steam over boiling water 3 minutes. Meanwhile, combine sugar, flour, cinnamon, salt and allspice in a large bowl. Add all of the apples; toss. Heat honey in a glass measuring cup in the microwave on high, 30 seconds. Drizzle honey over apples. Let rest.
2 Heat oven to 350 degrees. For crust, combine flour, sugar, salt and baking powder. Cut in shortening. Slightly beat egg with ice water and vinegar in small bowl; pour into flour mixture. Stir just until dough gathers into a ball. Roll out half of the dough on floured surface. Fit into pie dish. Fill bottom crust with filling.
3 Roll out top crust. Dampen top edge of bottom crust with water. Top with upper crust. Cut slits in top crust. Pinch two crusts together, fluting the edge as you go. Cover edges with foil. Bake 30 minutes. Remove foil. Bake until browned and bubbly, 25 minutes. Cool.
Per serving: 432 calories, 20% of calories from fat, 10 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 26 mg cholesterol, 84 g carbohydrates, 5 g protein, 251 mg sodium, 3 g fiber
Blue ribbon corn relish
Prep: 35 minutes Cook: 45 minutes Makes: 4 pints
Barb Schaller won eight blue ribbons at the Minnesota State Fair for this relish. Crunchy, colorful and easy to make, the relish cooks up quickly. Follow Ball canning instructions (freshpreserving.com) to can, or, store the finished relish in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.
10 ears corn, kernels cut off to measure 8 cups
1 each, finely chopped: green bell pepper, red bell pepper, large yellow onion
1 1/3 cups cider vinegar
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1 1/4 teaspoons dry mustard
3/4 teaspoon celery seeds
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
Combine all ingredients in a large, nonreactive saucepan; heat to a boil over high heat. Turn heat to low; simmer 30 minutes. Pour into hot, sterilized canning jars; cover and seal. Process in a boiling water bath 15 minutes, following canning instructions, or refrigerate.