Where crafters, canners and cooks compete

State Fair opens with ribbons awarded in hay growing, pickling and odd vegetables

August 25, 2006|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,sun reporter

Before the Dizzy Dragons spin, the Zipper zooms, the Tornado whirls or a single mouth is dusted with powdered sugar from Don's Fresh Made Funnel Cakes, there is work to be done at the Maryland State Fair.

Watermelon pickles, chow chow and sauerkraut must be tasted. Hay must be sniffed. Someone must decide whether the onion sextuplets, the forked carrot or the eggplant that looks like a face is the best vegetable oddity. And coils of yarn spun from animal hair - including one made from dog fur - must be inspected for lumps and snarls.

It is easy to be dazzled by the bleeping, blinking Midway or entranced by the ponies, swimming pigs and contestants for Miss Maryland Agriculture at the fair, which opens today. But there are quiet corners. The Home Arts and Farm and Garden buildings display the fruits of months of hard work at old-fashioned pursuits.

"It's sort of a connection to our past," said LeeAnne Roberts, a computer programmer from Silver Spring, who entered six skeins in the spinning competition. "In times gone past, the county or state fair would be a chance to show your work and compete and learn how to improve for next year."

In addition to sheep's wool, she has spun alpaca, angora and the fur trimmed from an acquaintance's Samoyed dog.

"The worst part of it was the fleas," Roberts said, explaining that she washed the fur in hot water and rinsed it in lemon juice before spinning it.

Earlier this week, judges Sally L. Jenkins and Mary Ann Jackson inspected Roberts' bone-colored coil of dog yarn as spinning superintendent Diane Wright watched. Although the Samoyed yarn was the only entry in the dog category, the judges inspected it carefully before awarding Roberts a first-place ribbon.

"Dog is wonderful," Jenkins said. "Last summer I saw a magnificent afghan that was made of Collie. It was so warm, you couldn't sit under it."

"The popular belief is that if it gets wet, it will smell like a dog, but that's not true," Wright said. "Cat fur smells though. You can't wash that smell out."

In spinning, as in many other competitions at the fair, uniformity is one key to success. Jenkins and Jackson uncoiled each skein and teased out individual strands of yarn to see if they were of equal thickness.

Elsewhere in the Home Arts building, Barbara Phillips and Mary Ellen Arbaugh checked the diameter and color of sugar cookies. They pressed cookies to their noses for a long sniff, then broke off morsels to taste.

"We only try small pieces," said Phillips, who had already judged brownies, macaroons, oatmeal, chocolate chip and bark cookies. A worker was unloading pinwheel cookies

The women's eyes darted back and forth behind their wire-rimmed glasses as they chewed the sugar cookie. Arbaugh cocked an eyebrow and Phillips frowned. "I don't like this as much," she said.

Some fair visitors might bypass these exhibits as they beat a quick path to Chan's Famous Chicken on a Stick, the World's Smallest Woman and the Tilt-A-Whirl. Yet for those who enjoy simple pleasures - the picklers, the knitters, the stitchers, the reapers, the gleaners - the home and garden competitions can be the highlight of the fair.

"This is so much more interesting for us," said Jane LaMonica of Parkton. Her three children all participate in 4-H."

Fair President Howard "Max" Mosner said that competitions such as spinning and canning are important to the fair, which turns 125 this year.

"I think it will continue to evolve, to provide those traditional things that people expect to see at a fair as well as new things that will interest young people," Mosner said. "I certainly expect it to be around 125 more years."

The same might even be said of the two hams that Ross Smith Jr. and Jeanette Smith plunked down on a table in the Farm and Garden hall.

The farmers from Monkton had brushed the meat with a brown sugar cure back in January and then smoked it for more than three weeks, using his grandfather's recipe.

They greeted fair worker Bill Langlotz warmly, having seen him at the fair for more than forty years.

As farm and garden superintendent, he presides over rows of flowers, beans, tomatoes, peaches, peppers, tobacco and hay.

Blocks of alfalfa, clover and timothy grass were tied with twine and displayed on a shelf, awaiting inspection by the judges. Nearby sat bundles of oats, rye and broomcorn and trays packed with ears of rust-colored and golden Indian corn.

Bees pulsed in an enclosed hive and shuttled through a clear tube to head outside to find flowers.

Refrigerators were packed with cartons of blackberries, cheese from cows, goats and sheep, butter and eggs. Langlotz explained that the judges hold the eggs up to a special light to check for internal blood spots.

In the Home Arts hall, a team of women examined the size and color of pickled tomatoes. They had already tasted the mint, elderberry and hot pepper jellies, the watermelon pickles, Dixie relish, chow chow and corn relish and were now picking the best preserved foods of the fair.

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