Fair days are matter of tradition

Contests draw cooks eager to show off their best recipes


Mom's macaroons, Aunt Fern's fondant - we all have that cherished recipe our friends request at birthday and graduation parties. No matter how obscure you may think your family favorite, next month's 125th annual Maryland State Fair probably has a contest to fit your recipe, with categories for everything from gingersnaps and spritz to peanut brittle and cherry pie.

The opportunities for cooks are extensive, with more than 100 "baked goods and candy" classifications, as well as an additional 150 categories in "food preservation."

Each year the fair also features a number of specialty competitions sponsored by food companies to use ingredients such as Spam, Pillsbury piecrust or KC Masterpiece barbecue sauce in creative ways. The newest challenge is Eagle Brand's "Cookie Bar Bonanza," in which contestants must use a 14-ounce can of Eagle Brand Sweetened Condensed Milk in their recipes.

The material rewards can be modest: First prize for most fair-sponsored contests pays $8 to $10. The specialty challenges can bring winners $100 to $200, along with the opportunity to compete nationally for thousands of dollars.

Still, state fair cooking contests attract devoted cooks who take part for pride as well as payoff. Woodbine resident Betty Pearre has won hundreds of dollars in prize money for her specialty cakes, cookies, pies and breads.

The retired homemaker has been submitting her baked goods for the past 10 years. This year she plans on entering five of the seven special categories, including her Ghirardelli chocolate cake.

In recent years, Pearre's daughter Kim Wroten and her two grandchildren, Samantha, 6, and Jacob, 2, entered their first recipes. "We like to compete, but in a fun way," said Pearre. "My daughter and I bounce ideas off each other all the time. If she wants to make a certain kind of dessert, even if it's my recipe, I'll let her use it."

A few years back, at a family reunion, Pearre realized her family's baking influence may run much deeper than three generations. A relative informed Pearre that two of her great-grandfathers were professional bakers in Germany. Some of their recipes have been passed down and this year Pearre and her daughter plan to enter two of them, a spice cake and a walnut cake, into a specialty "treasured heirloom recipe" category.

Self-described "country girl" Dolores Mason, 74, plans to enter about 100 different competitions at this year's Maryland fair. When she submitted her first entry - a jar of preserved tomatoes - 50 years ago, Mason had no idea baking and preserving foods would become her life's passion.

"It started as a hobby that grew into a sort of way of life," said the mother of five. Her interests have stretched far beyond the kitchen. Mason regularly enters needlework, plants, flowers and her latest endeavor, woodwork. She grows many of the fruits and vegetables she uses in her rooftop garden in Romney, W.Va. "I love to create things," she said.

While Pearre and her family may keep the competition friendly, behind the judges' table, things tend to heat up. Though there are dozens of classifications in the baked goods and candies categories to evaluate, the nine "highly qualified" judges "take the competition very seriously," according to the superintendent for baked goods, Linda Ensor.

Mason says that you can't take the competition too seriously as a contestant, though. "Every year the judges change, and everyone has different tastes. The recipes that won first prize last year may not even be in the running this year," Mason often tells her fellow competitors. "Don't get discouraged, because you can never predict what recipes will do well."


If you want to enter

The Maryland State Fair runs from Aug. 25 to Sept. 4 at the state fairgrounds, York and Timonium roads, Timonium. Contest dates and rules vary. Entry forms and instructions can be found at marylandstatefair.com under "Home Arts," or by calling 410-252-0200. Walk-ins will be accepted.

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