Imagine having to choose the best chocolate chip cookie among 100 plates of the delectable favorites -- all baked fresh by eager youngsters hoping to be the grand champion at the Carroll County 4-H/FFA Fair.
Better yet, imagine having to choose the grand champion in dozens of categories of baked goods after nibbling on countless breads, muffins, cookies, pies and cakes. There are 21 categories of breads, rolls and muffins; 14 of cookies; 13 of cakes; three of pies; and 11 of decorated cakes.
"Taste is a big issue, but also the appearance, how they arrange it, how well they know the recipe," said Debbie Slack Katz, a judge from Howard County. "When it's down to one or two items, it's picking the best. Usually, you have one or two that are outstanding and one or two that aren't."
It took more than 45 women and two men to judge the baked goods, cakes, pies and decorated cakes during a three-hour period yesterday morning at the annual fair that celebrates Carroll County's agricultural heritage.
When the judging was over, 14-year-old Amy Hummel of New Windsor was the grand champion for her coffee cake.
Goodies were auctioned or sold separately last night during the annual Cake Auction, while others will be dessert for fair-goers in the Burns Hall dining room.
What qualifies one to be a judge? A love of chocolate chip cookies is not enough. Judges are selected for their knowledge of cooking and experience in the kitchen.
Eva Fisher, a fair official who supervises the judges for cookies, -- brownies, fudge and bread, said she selects judges about six weeks before the fair. They come from Frederick, Howard, Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties because they love the job and the 4-H youngsters.
"I had one judge from Frederick County so anxious to judge one year that she showed up even in the pouring rain, and I hadn't called her," said Fisher.
Some have been judging so long they can't tell you how many years it has been. They know from experience what to do, what to look for, what questions to ask.
Judges have score sheets to rate aspects of each baked item. They look at the shape, crust and volume, inside and outside appearance, taste, odor, graininess, color -- whatever is applicable.
Judges are paired, so two people decide how good an item is. The item is visually judged, as well as taste-tested. The 4-H baker is present at judging to answer questions about his or her offering.
"They send you papers telling you what the 4-H'ers are supposed to do and not supposed to do, and if the 4-H'er follows the instructions, it makes it easier for the judges," said Eleanor Shipley of Westminster, who has been involved with the fair for more than 50 years. "I've judged so long that I've learned as I go along. You learn from other judges."
In recent years, judging classes have been held for project areas -- farm products (hay, straw), baked goods, fruits, vegetables, clothes, crafts and ceramics.
"They train you what to look for, like when you break open a cookie," said Fisher. "They're even certifying them now, and I think in a few years they may need to be certified to judge."
On the morning of the fair, judges get up knowing they are going to be nibbling until lunch time. To eat breakfast or not to eat breakfast? That is the question.
"It's a good thing to skip breakfast," Shipley advised. "You get a ++ free meal for judging afterward, but you're not always hungry then. You tell them, 'Give me some time to get this out of my system.' "
Nancy Ogletree of Snydersburg agreed.
"You don't eat breakfast and you try not to have anything to change the flavor of the food," she said. "They give you water to swish your mouth out with. You don't want lunch afterward, you want to walk around the fair and see things for a while."
Others eat a light breakfast, like plain toast or fruit. But Gregory Koontz, one of two male judges, said he had two brown-sugar cinnamon Pop Tarts and coffee before judging fruits, vegetables, and white and yellow cakes.
Nibbling at chocolate chip cookies or brownies for three hours can try even the hardiest chocoholic.
"The first year I judged, we had chocolate chip cookies," recalled Ogletree. "I never knew you could get a chocolate chip high."
When Ogletree got home that afternoon, she became so jittery she had to lie down. "I talked to a couple of friends later and they said, 'Oh, you had a sugar overdose,' " she said.
Shipley acknowledged that "they [the foods] all run together toward the end -- it's hard to taste the difference. It tries your taste buds."
After judging 100 chocolate chip cookie entries yesterday, Myra Fritz and Frances Darner agreed: "We don't want to see another chocolate chip cookie until Christmas."
Faye Hodiak, who had been chewing brownies with Doris Slack, said, "Guess what we're not having for lunch."
A treat, not trial
But for Veronica Koontz, who was judging cakes with her son Gregory, tasting 70 cakes was more of a treat than a trial.
"I love cakes," she said. "I've been a baker for 30 years and to taste all the different cakes is fun."
Judges learn from the experience. As they carefully chew each item, concentration is evident on their faces. They study the flavor, deciding if it's just right, or wondering what unusual ingredient is giving that odd taste.
"You even get to know the different brands of flours -- they all have their own flavor," said Ogletree, who judged machine-made breads. "Even the margarines have a different taste. You really learn a lot about foods when you're judging."
Judges also get new ideas for foods. Ogletree raved about a Cheddar cheese bread that contained taco seasoning.
After it's over, the judges' pay is a free meal and heartfelt thanks, but it's enough.
"They love it so much, I got some that have come out at least 15 years," Fisher said. "They love to help the 4-H'ers."
Pub Date: 7/30/98