Ribbon-winner bakes toward sweet victory


Barbara Hoddinott stood in the kitchen of her home in Street, slicing peaches into half-inch pieces.

Practicing for the 19th annual Peach Pie Contest at the Harford County Farm Fair, she moved through the familiar series of steps: peel the skin, put the pieces in a bowl, add sugar, stir.

One thing was not familiar: Her husband, Keith, stood nearby watching.

Usually, he's in the contest too, so they must arrange separate kitchen times to keep their creations secret. But the rules say Keith must sit out the 2006 competition because he won last year, leaving him free to wander around the kitchen while Barbara gets serious.

"We are both very competitive," said Barbara, who won in 2004. "But we still just have fun with it."

Keith's view on the matter edges a little closer to trash talk.

"As long as I keeping winning, competing with my wife is fine with me," he quipped.

The pie contest, scheduled for 2 p.m. next Sunday, is one of many "home arts" contests featured throughout the farm fair. Organizers expect about 50,000 people to attend the four-day event at the Harford County Equestrian Center in Bel Air. The fair will feature livestock shows and exhibitions, rides, games and live entertainment.

The Hoddinotts, both 49, have been entering the pie contest for about 18 years, as well as competitions for jellies, jams, pickles, vegetables and crafts. They compete in other area events, too, such as the Mason-Dixon Fair, the York (Pa.) Fair and the Maryland State Fair.

Part of the motivation comes from the fact that they grow much of the raw material for their creations on a several-acre garden.

"When you grow stuff, you have to do something with it," said Keith, a soil scientist at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

They concede that they also like the thrill of victory.

"We win hundreds of awards and ribbons for entries of all sorts of canned and baked goods as well as crafts," said Barbara. "So it's really hard to get upset when one or the other of us wins first place or the championship ribbon."

It can take up to two days for the Hoddinotts to get their many entries for various contests to the fair. But it's worth the effort because they almost always win something.

"But if I can't win, I hope that Keith does," Barbara said.

Though they cheer on each other, they each keeps tabs on the other's performance.

"We keep a running tally each year that shows who won the most ribbons," said Barbara, showing some of their ribbons. "Keith is a little bit ahead of me this year."

But the year's not over yet, she said.

The Harford pie contest draws anywhere from eight to 30 entrants ages 17 and older.

Participants' pie deliveries to the contest can be quite a procession, said Susan Pardo, the superintendent of the contest. Some people bring the pies on buses arranged to provide free transportation to the site, said Pardo, who has headed the contest for about five years. It's hard to manage a hot pie and drive, she said.

"So they step off the bus carrying a pie so hot they have to wrap a towel around it to carry it," Pardo said.

The contestants then work to cool their wares once they get them to the judging table.

"It's quite a vision," she said.

New this year is a category for 12- to 16-year-olds.

"We want to encourage people of all ages to make pies," Pardo said.

The judging panel is made up of representatives of the Hunt Valley-based spice maker McCormick & Co. Inc., as well as professional chefs.

The winner gets $40, a spice rack stocked with dozens of spices, and a cookbook - not to mention the prestige of making the best peach pie in the county. The runner-up gets $25, third place $15, and fourth receives $10.

Back in the Hoddinotts' kitchen, it was all business.

Barbara poured the peach filling into a homemade pie crust and added a sprinkle of cinnamon, a pinch of nutmeg, and some flour.

"This helps the juices thicken," she said. "So when the pie bakes it won't run over the edges."

She picked up the flattened crust still clinging to wax paper, laid it atop the filling and peeled away the paper. She deftly pinched the perimeter of the top crust into the bottom crust and put the pie in the oven.

"Now the pie has to cook on a high temperature of 425 [degrees] for 15 minutes and then I'll turn the temperature down," said Barbara. "Sometimes the crust gets soggy, but if you cook it on high first that doesn't happen."

With about 20 years of entering pies in contests at local and state levels, the Hoddinotts have learned a lot of tricks of the trade necessary for making a sublime pie.

One commonly held misconception is that the pie is better if it is made the morning of the competition.

"But the truth is, if the pie sits overnight, it tastes better," said Barbara, who started making pies when she got married in 1984. "Plus it's hard to get a piping hot pie cool in time for the competition."

For Barbara, it's pretty much a one-shot deal with an entry in a pie contest.

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