A county fair pair of discriminating taste Veteran judges know how to find a winner

August 14, 1996|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

It takes discriminating taste buds to discern the best bread, but Alice Spencer, 88, has trained her palate to recognize it.

She has tasted thousands of goods ranging from sweet rolls, breads, muffins and cookies to canned beets, carrots, jellies and jam over the past 30 years as a judge at county fairs, doling out criticism and praise.

"Oh, Lordy, that one's much too tough," says Spencer, as she pinches off a bit of a loaf of whole wheat bread.

Her partner, June Branthover, disagrees slightly.

"The color is good a light brown, and it does have a nice shape to it," says Branthover, 69, as she lifts and turns the loaf in her hands.

Spencer chews slowly. "But it's a bit too dry. It's almost as rough as cardboard."

Some of the entries are duds from the beginning. Six biscuits lying on a dainty blue paper plate and doily looked golden brown and round. But they failed Spencer's test of touch.

"These things are as tough as a paperweight," she said, pounding a biscuit on the table edge. "They feel as hard as a quarter. Forget tasting them."

But selecting the best of the best is a bit more difficult.

The two top entries in the bread and pastry category are a round coffee cake sprinkled with nuts and a zucchini bread loaded with chunks of pineapple.

And after a few more pinches to test for moisture, a waft of the ingredients and with a few slow chews of each, they crown the nutty pastry with the purple Grand Champion ribbon of the 70 breads and pastries for its taste and texture.

"Often zucchini breads are moist and sticky, but this one had a good flavor to it," Spencer says. "But the coffee cake was truly the champ. It was just superior."

Before the day is over, Spencer and Branthover will touch, smell and taste about 70 homemade breads and pastries at the baked foods and candies competition at the 51st Howard County Fair in West Friendship.

With only an estimated 20 taste-testers in the state who judge baked goods and canned foods at fairs, according to officials, the pool of available judges is shrinking as fewer people are interested in the household competition.

"Before there used to be 100 people I could call up and ask to judge canning or baked goods," says organizer Debbie Slack-Katz. "Now it's sad, but there's just not as many people doing the old-time stuff of growing their vegetables and canning or making their breads."

Although there are no formal guidelines on who can judge, fair organizers said they seek judges from neighboring counties to avoid anyone recognizing a taste.

To boost interest, some fairs pay judges' mileage for the day or give them a free lunch. The 15 judges at Howard County's fair Saturday each received a $15 check.

A family tradition

But for most of the elite tasters, judging at the fair isn't a matter of money, it's a family tradition that goes back generations. And choosing the pie with the firmest filling, the pound cake with the softest touch or the most flavorful chocolate cake is an art form.

"It's like judging in the Olympics when there's a thousandth of a second left in a match and it comes down to the wire of who's got the best landing and the straightest arms to be the best of all," says 20-year veteran Mary Burke, as she leans down to examine a three-layer chocolate cake, her hands and face speckled with bits of brown.

'Got to get picky'

"It's the same thing with cakes. They're all good cakes, but you've got to get picky, real picky when you're judging," she says.

In fact, to stay abreast of the latest cooking trends such as microwave cakes, breads from machines and edible flowers, the judges attend a one-day "judging school" each year to fine tune their skills.

But traditions such as bringing a few nibbles of cheddar cheese to cleanse the palate between sweets or sucking a lemon or a mint leaf to bring out a chocolate flavor remain practiced crafts.

"This is just too much fun to get tired of tasting sweets and baked goodies," Branthover says. "Take a swig of lemonade, eat a couple of carrots after tasting that last batch of 11 zucchini breads and bring on the next one."

There are no written guidelines for the judges as to what is a good or ribbon-winning cake, but each knows from her own experience that it's eye appeal, texture, difficulty and, most important, taste.

A 5-inch high, light brown basket cake with black licorice handles, filled with about 20 beady-eyed "crabs," looks as if it came from a professional bakery. And a white sheet cake next to it with green-frosted spaghetti stems for the iced flowers could have been a wedding cake.

While the specialty cakes look delicious, the proof is in their tasting.

One entry looks like an Easter basket, complete with pastel flowers on top, but a taste bumps it out of contention. "Oh, dry. . . . Mary, this one's a bit dry," says Slack-Katz, as she cuts into the cake.

Simply wonderful

Then Burke bites into a heart-shaped devil's food cake frosted white and decorated with purple morning glories. "Ahhh. This one is simply wonderful," she says. "That's delicious even after all the chocolate we've eaten. That's nice."

With her fork still in her mouth, partner Gloria Kennedy of Montgomery County adds: "Really nice and smooth."

The creativity of the crab-basket cake catches her eye, however, and she stares intently at that entry looking for the smallest flaw.

But after a 15-minute comparative lick of frosting and filling, the quality of the batter in the white-iced heart won her taste buds' approval.

As she puts it, "It was truly the 'cake of all cakes.' "

Pub Date: 8/14/96

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