It all began not in North Carolina, but in Vermont, about 10 years ago. A profusion of strawberries perfumed the kitchen. Dan, our two children and I had gone berry-picking and once we started, we couldn't seem to stop. As Dan and I surveyed the mountains of fruit, he recalled his grandmother making homemade preserves when he was a boy. One long distance call later, Dan was on his way to the store to buy his first dozen Ball mason jars. Little did we know.
It was either the same summer or the following one I read in the Springfield, Vt., Times-Reporter that the local county fair had a homemade jam competition. "Hey Dan," I suggested, "You should enter your strawberry jam." Although there ended up being only three entrants for three ribbons, he was still best in show, collecting his first blue ribbon. A star was born.
Emboldened by his success in Vermont, that autumn Dan set his sights on our own North Carolina State Fair. How do you actually enter, we wondered? We quickly learned. You call the Fair (today there's even a web site, www.ncstatefair.org) to order your free copy of the annual State Fair Premium Book--this year's runs an impressive 302 pages. Thumbing through its pages, especially "Department W -- Culinary," we realized there was something for everyone: In addition to Dan's domain, pickles and preserves, there were categories for every sort of food, from cheese straws to cornbread, pound cakes to wedding cakes, chocolate chip cookies to pralines and truffles. And there were junior categories, too, including "9 and under" categories that applied to both of our kids at that time. In short, no one is too old or too young to enter something in the fair.
State Fair delivery day, 2002. I park in front of the Education Building to deliver our entries--a dozen jars of Dan's pickles and preserves, 13-year-old Dino's cocoa-coconut brownies and banana muffins. (Quentin, now 15, retired from competition after garnering a blue ribbon for his double butterscotch brownies. And despite high hopes over the years for my special pumpkin and zucchini breads--"Item W222: Quickbread -- Loaf, Vegetable"--I remain the sole family member never to win a ribbon--even my sister has a red ribbon for her sourdough bread. I try to convince myself this has been a character-building experience.
Inside the Education Building everyone is busy. 4-H-ers are setting up elaborate exhibits; in the Home Furnishings area, staff members are arranging quilts, afghans and framed cross-stitch pieces. I walk up to the Canned Goods table with my cardboard box of a dozen jars, including plum jam, bread-and-butter pickles and citrus marmalade. The faces behind the table look familiar to me, and it's no wonder--Lucy Goode has worked the Canned Goods section for "40 some" years, Billie Hamilton for 27, and Helen Stallins "only" 10 or 12.
The easy camaraderie among the women is that of longtime friends. Billie thinks this year's most unusual entry is Beet Jelly. This reminds Lucy of canned ramps from another year. "Are those a kind of green?" I ask. Helen tells me they're really more like an onion. "You could smell them right through the jar," she laughed. "Jim Graham loved 'em!" She holds up a jar of apricot-peach jam. It glows like an amber jewel. According to Helen, a woman drove all the way from Charlotte just to enter that one jar of jam. Helen looks up my husband's name in a notebook, then hands me the handwritten entry tags. The State Fair Culinary Department is still a remarkably low-tech operation.
When I first started doing State Fair delivery for my family, invariably someone would look at my entry box heavy with cucumber pickle and strawberry and blueberry jam and ask, "Are these yours, honey?" and I'd say "No, actually, my husband made them." This would result in an exclamation of, "Your husband?! You ought to keep him!" But according to Billie, Lucy and Helen, male entrants are much less of a novelty these days.
In fact, a look around the culinary area pretty thoroughly dispels any notion that State Fair food entrants are a bunch of countrified little old ladies. In particular, there are lots of children. Teresa Gregory has come from Benson with her children, Adam and Elizabeth, and their friend, Kimberly Byrd. Each child is a first-time entrant and has baked a layer cake. Teresa says that when they came to the fair last year and looked at the cakes, 10-year-old Kimberly got the bug: "I could see in her eyes that she planned to enter. We've been planning for a whole year."
The results of the year's planning--and a baking marathon at the Gregory house that lasted until 1:30 a.m.--are 10-year-old Elizabeth's rainbow cake, a four-layer beauty covered with multicolored sprinkles, Kimberly's snowball cake, mounded on top with coconut and chocolate chips, and 11-year-old Adam's coconut cake, made from a family recipe so treasured it is kept locked in a safe. Adam grins--"First time I ever baked a cake."
As the decorated cakes are brought in they capture everyone's attention. Eleven-year-old Brittni Moore has based hers on a quilt-block pattern called "Hole in the Barn Door"; her 10-year-old sister Catie has brought one with a pumpkin scene. In the adult division are even more spectacular creations. Veterinary technician Amanda Medlin of Wake Forest spent "about 20 hours" making a frosted tea-set--coffee pot, sugar bowl, creamer, and coffee cup decorated with pastel flowers. Jessica Vance of Raleigh's "Wedding Cakes by Jessica" has fashioned a striped armchair cake sitting on a rug complete with a lamp and a tiny pair of slippers. Jessica says she took a cake decorating class as a teenager about 20 years ago and immediately "knew that's what I wanted to do" with her life.
My attention is drawn away from the fancy cakes as Billie Hamilton approaches me and asks, "Are you contestant number W-416?" I consult the stubs from my entry tags. "Yes, that's my husband's number." She leads me back to the Canned Goods table. It turns out that Dan has used a "non-approved canning jar" for his vegetable chutney and it must be disqualified. "The judges will throw that out in a heartbeat," Lucy says crisply.
I take the jar of tomato chutney and put it back in my empty cardboard box. At least Dan still has 11 other entries for Friday's judging. The day after the judging is the first day of the fair, when you can find out if you're a winner. For Billie Hamilton, "the greatest joy" is watching children come in and finding out they've won. Veteran entrant Hayden Bibby, although only 9, already knows that feeling. He won a "Best in Show" last year for his Chocolate Yummies, which are made with cranberries and white chocolate. His bright eyes look at me from under his dark hair as he says confidently, "Boys can cook as well as girls, and sometimes a little better." I guess all's fair in love and war and at the State Fair.