HARRINGTON, Del. - Mary Ellen Arbaugh of Taneytown held up a cherry pie she had baked from scratch and asked a small gathering what they thought.
One man noticed the edge was crumbling in places. A woman pointed out the lattice top was not evenly spaced. When a slice was cut, another woman declared the crust too doughy, although the taste was good and not too tart.
These were no ungracious guests. Arbaugh's audience was supposed to be critical. They were among 40 people who recently attended the Maryland Association of Agricultural Fairs and Shows' judging school at the Delaware State Fairgrounds in Harrington. (The Delaware fair is a member and other fairs outside Maryland are permitted to join the association.)
"Everyone does it different," Arbaugh told her class. "What you're trying to do is come up with a fair way to evaluate what they've done."
When summer rolls around, judging students will be at fairs sampling pies, cakes and cookies and tasting jams and jellies. Others will be checking the seams on hand-sewn clothing and the stitches on quilts; examining jars of beans, tomatoes and pickles; rating paintings, photographs and wooden furniture; and ranking entries in hundreds of other categories.
The fair association hopes that judging school will help its members do a job that is more equitable and more uniform.
Offered several times a year, the school focuses on a range of indoor exhibits and does not include livestock. A judge receives certification after taking three classes in the same subject.
Many judges are knowledgeable about one or more areas, said Barbara Morgan of Frederick, one of the organizers of judging school.
"They are here to pick up hints and tips," she said. "We want to make sure everyone is consistent."
Also, she said, it is a way to teach judges about new categories, such as scrapbooking. Also, there is often updated information when traditional categories - such as sewing, weaving and canning - are affected by new technology and methods, she said.
A lot of judging criteria are spelled out in the rules at each fair, from what type of jar to use in canning to how to frame artwork.
Often, categories are created so the items being judged are similar, such as separating pieced quilts from embroidered quilts.
What remains for judges is to look at the details.
Those details were discussed at length Thursday in 12 seminars, held in four rooms curtained off in the Delaware fairground's cavernous exhibits building.
Jars of beans should be full to the rim. Quilts should not show the pencil marks used to outline the pattern. Grains should smell fresh, not moldy. Weaving projects shouldn't curve in on the sides like an hourglass.
The final decisions are often somewhat subjective, said Mary Streaker of Ruxton, who serves as co-superintendent of the Howard County Fair's Home Arts Department. But, as leader of a class on fine arts, "there are definitely guidelines I wanted to teach," she said.
"I hope they [participants] will get a good idea of what the general principles of art are," she said. "I hope they'll have an informed opinion."
Sandy Thompson of Viola, Del., has been judging at the Delaware State Fair for 34 years. But, she said, "I haven't seen a class where I haven't learned something. It's fun to see what someone else has to say."
Plus, "Being a certified judge lends that much more credibility to the job. ... I think it is what the fair needs," said Thompson, a child nutrition supervisor for a Delaware school district.
The training also prepares the judges to face entrants who have put a lot of time into their projects.
"When I was a kid, nobody questioned a judge," said Andy Cashman, president of the Maryland Association of Agricultural Fairs and Shows. "In this day and age, people are more question-oriented. They want to find out why" decisions are made.
"It is something that the fair owes the public," added Becky Brashear, vice president of the fair association and manager of the Great Frederick Fair. "It is important that they are judged fairly. ... These exhibits are people's lives, they've put their heart and souls into them."
Throughout the day, instructors talked about ways to offer constructive comments on entries that are not winners.
"Always start out with something positive," said Connie Palmer of Frederick, co-organizer of judging school. Then, she said, you could offer helpful hints to improve.
Particularly when judging children - either with written comments or in one-on-one interviews - "we want to encourage them to come back," she said.
Judging school also attracted competitors in search of some helpful intelligence.
Renee Hamidi of Sparks didn't get any comments on her bread, muffins, jams and cookies at the Maryland State Fair, so she decided to attend judging school herself.
"I just wanted to learn more about what they are looking for," said the stay-at-home mother of three. She started entering the state fair in 1998 and won several ribbons, including an overall prize for bread.
Megan Harris of Westminster likes to use the seminars to learn about projects for the 4-H group she leads in Carroll County.
"I get so many great ideas," said Harris, who works for a farm equipment dealer in Glen Rock, Pa., "especially interacting with the other people."
But she also likes to keep the role of the judge in perspective, especially when her 4-H members are disappointed by not winning a ribbon.
"I tell them it's one judge's opinion for one day," she said.