Vegetables squeezed till they please

Howard fair judges handle produce from bland to grand


Over the years, the judges in the Howard County Fair's vegetable department have seen some freaky vegetables.

So this weekend they were unfazed by conjoined cherry tomatoes, six-pronged carrots and eggplants with nose-like protrusions.

"It's a very ordinary group," said Miriam Mahowald, superintendent of the department, "except the ugly cucumber," which went on to win a blue ribbon for its brownish-orange skin.

But if years of experience takes some of the wonder out of judging the oddest produce, it comes in handy evaluating the roughly 300 "normal" entries of tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, beans, pumpkins, zucchini and more that make the fruit and vegetable department a staple of the 61-year-old fair.

The fair will offer rides, animal shows, contests, demonstrations and a display of all the vegetable entries through Saturday in West Friendship.

Hundreds of Howard County farms have been replaced by development, but vegetable growing has proven to be one traditional farm activity that fits just fine on smaller farms, acre-sized suburban plots and even apartment balconies.

"It's a very popular pastime, really," said Mahowald, of Ellicott City, who is a former coordinator of the county Master Gardeners program and has supervised the fair's vegetable department for at least 15 years. "You can do a little bit of vegetable gardening wherever you live."

The number of entries fluctuates each year, affected heavily by the weather, but there are always a few hundred fruits and vegetables vying for ribbons.

This year's cool spring followed by drought followed by downpours followed by scorching heat made for poor growing conditions, said Mary Lyon of Granite, Mahowald's second-in-command for the past eight years. But 102 entrants - including at least 30 who had never exhibited before - took part this year, entering 315 exhibits.

Categories for the largest zucchini, which is determined by weight, and cherry tomatoes were the most popular, with 18 entries apiece.

On Saturday afternoon, the organizers worked their way down a 64-foot table piled with produce. They examined, squeezed, sniffed, prodded, and rolled the items around on plates to determine which ones deserved ribbons.

Trudi Louzon of Marriottsville was the official judge this year. But Mahowald, Lyon and a few other volunteers offered opinions and commentary over 2 1/2 hours of judging.

Mahowald said many people who walk through the building - and a fair number of the entrants themselves - do not know what makes an award-winning fruit or vegetable.

The guiding principle is market quality, she said. "Usually we can think about which one would you buy."

Mahowald emphasized throughout the judging that for entries consisting of several items - four tomatoes, for example, or three cucumbers - uniformity in size and shape is a key factor.

Some categories were judged by weight, including the largest pumpkin - 73.8 pounds - and the largest zucchini - 9 pounds, 1 ounce. But in the categories that focused on quality, large size was not always a plus.

For zucchini, "smaller taste better," Mahowald said. And the same generally holds true for squash, cucumbers and eggplant.

Some entries disappointed the discerning judges. Soft okra and cucumbers that flopped around when shaken were passed over for ribbons. A group of hot peppers was deemed by Mahowald to have "nothing to jump out at you, they're just there." And a few ears of wormy corn drew immediate disapproval.

Other entries caught the fancy of the vegetable lovers, with Lyon in particular praising "pretty" peppers, a "happy" herb display and some "velvety" green beans.

Jalapeno peppers - which have been growing more popular in recent years - were "beautiful, just beautiful," Mahowald said, and green peppers were even better.

"Oh, wow! Oh my goodness. Feel that pepper," Mahowald said. "I like to go with a heavy, thick-walled pepper. Thick walls mean flavor."

And finally, while examining the "new or unusual vegetable" category, the judges were surprised by a plate of fuzzy yellow "garden peach" tomatoes that Mahowald called "really unusual."

Louzon examined it, stroked it and agreed: "That is weird."

While some criteria are clear, Mahowald noted that many decisions are subjective, particularly among the lower-placing entries.

Mahowald and Lyon have become fixtures in the vegetable building, spending 12 hours there every day of the fair. They answer questions, show off the best specimens, slice up for tastings some produce in danger of going bad and toss out the items that have passed their prime.

John Bouma III, 12, of Ellicott City was excited when the building reopened and he could see that he won ribbons in several categories, as well as in a separate fruit and vegetable contest for 4-H members.

Bouma is the third generation of his family to compete at the fair, helping grow many types of vegetables on his grandfather's 3-acre Clarksville farm. He said, "I think it's fun to be able to pick and wash and sort through and see what you have grown."

This year, he won the contest for largest pumpkin, and revealed that protecting the pumpkin from deer and using pig manure were secrets to his success.

He also said he enjoyed being a part of the six-decades-old competition. "It makes my dad happy and my grandpa happy," he said. "And it's a learning experience."

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