The drive from Cordova, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, to the State Fairgrounds in Timonium takes Carol Frampton one hour and 30 minutes if she doesn't fight traffic. In the nine or 10 years she has entered the State Fair, she has never come across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and not fought traffic.
So when the fair required entrants to register, Frampton signed up to enter 330.
As she sees it, if you're going to all the trouble to get there, you might as well take everything you've got.
So she took off early Monday from her job in an insurance company and drove west with 121 entries - plus her husband John to carry them - and that was the first trip. She will come back next week with another load, when fresh flowers are entered.
On this trip, she brought seven silk-flower arrangements, two Christmastime arrangements, photos and 11 boxes packed with enough canned goods to enter 100 classes. Canned goods and flowers are her strongest suits, although her hot peppers and potatoes have won blue ribbons, too.
The daughter of farmers, Frampton, who is 52, has raised and canned vegetables all her life. She enters jams, jellies, chow-chows, relishes, pickles, sauces, salsas, peaches, pears, apples, cherries, blueberries, blackberries, green beans, lima beans, tomatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, asparagus, peas, carrots, kale.
Her favorite canned-goods competition is to pick five and make a meal. This year, she's going with canned beef, green beans, pickled beets, applesauce and one more jar somewhere in the 11 boxes.
Entering is free, and travel is her only cost. Some years, she sits in Beltway traffic and wonders whether it's worth it. Then she remembers how it feels to win, and before long, she's back on the road again.
Stitching up the competition
A few years have passed since Jean Smith, "The Queen of Tatting," was a contestant instead of a State Fair judge. Years spent studying other people's handmade lace, eyeing their collars and cuffs, examining their hand towels and handkerchiefs, has her eager to compete this year.
Smith, who is now 69, was not interested in tatting when her grandmother was alive to teach her. She taught herself the hobby 20 years ago when she worked part-time at the Craft Corral in Bel Air. The challenge has always been to make lace using a 2-inch bobbin and one's hands as a mini-loom.
Judging has shown Smith that the craft is a dying art. Neatness sets skilled tatters apart from beginners. So do tight knots and loops that are the same shape and size. A seasoned tatter chooses thread suitable for the pattern.
Her skill has come from experience. Practice has not made her rich. Far from it. The few dollars she has won alongside her 45 State Fair ribbons have been used to purchase more thread, or "put toward something for the house" in Fallston.
In the sewing division of the Home Arts category, tatting is not as heavily entered as knitting, and not as competitive as quilting. But for the eight or nine who enter, there's a difference between good lace angels and great ones, first-place bookmarks and those that finish third.
The last time she entered, a judge gave Smith's doily a blue ribbon. They don't call her the queen for nothing.
Not always a piece of cake
Blue ribbon chow-chows, blue ribbon cookies, blue ribbon cushaws. Anne Jaskinia won 50 ribbons last year, 48 the year before, 47 before that, and yet she cannot win with pound cakes.
"I've been lucky with chiffon cakes and angel food cakes and sponge cakes and different Bundt cakes," Jaskinia says. "But my pound cakes are doorstoppers."
Which gets to the heart of Jaskinia's strategy. To lose is to tinker. To finish second is to try, try again.
When Jaskinia lost with peanut butter cookies, she switched to crunchy. When that didn't do it, she added crushed peanuts and won.
The year her lemonade cookies failed to impress, she saw the winner had used oranges. Her orange butter cookies sank the competition after that.
Like the great scientists, Jaskinia never stops tinkering. She flips through seed company catalogs in winter. She plants her string beans in spring so they will come in around the time the fair opens.
Two days before, she begins baking at 5 a.m. Fruit breads and muffins first, then cookies and cakes. Her goal is to walk into the superintendent's office with confections still steaming.
Jaskinia, who is 73 and lives in Laurel, fell in her cantaloupe patch and broke her shoulder, so jams and jellies will be a whole new category without her 34 entries. She's still entering vegetables, flowers and potted plants, and she's managed to do some baking. She thinks she may have the answer to what she calls her "cake situation."
She tried chocolate, tried sour cream. This year, simpler may be better. She's back where she started, with plain vanilla.
Carving out a name for himself
The first year James Scott entered the State Fair he won a blue ribbon, and the red cedar sculpture that won was the first piece he carved.