BLUE RIBBON TALES
At the State Fair, the work is tense as judges confer over cheesecake, chili and bread
Before Cutthroat Kitchen and Master Chef Junior, state and county fairs were the place for home cooks and bakers with a competitive streak to submit their culinary creations to a panel of judges with a blue ribbon at stake.
I have had a lifelong love of the fair. The summer before third grade, my cookies won best in show. My entry, Peanut Butter Pockets, is the first documented original recipe that I created. Winning that prize, the giant rosette ribbon, the envelope of cash ($20 to a 9-year-old in 1989 equaled a king’s ransom), remains a pithy part of my origin story, as I’ve grown up to be a chef. That win anchors my lifelong culinary focus. Now I’m a judge at the New Jersey State Fair.
The fair, which recently celebrated its 75th anniversary, has been held since 1976 in Augusta, at the Sussex County Fairgrounds. This year’s fair is from Aug. 4 to Aug. 13. The Creative Arts for Home and Hobby Division is the destination for professional and amateur entrants, both adults and kids from all over the state who pick a category that speaks to them and submit a culinary creation. Some categories offer coupons and prizes, thanks to sponsors King Arthur Flour and Domino Foods. Others are for pride and glory alone.
At the fairgrounds, among the pavilions showing off 4-H livestock and fancy chickens and adjacent to the midway rides and vendors selling fried everything, entrants set their boxes and plates tagged with anonymizing codes along rows of folding tables. The judges sit and wait, some smile. Rubrics have been printed and pens checked for functionality. The air is electric with anticipation and motes of confectioners’ sugar.
“We look for judges who have knowledge of every aspect of what they are judging,” says Barb Thomas, the director of the Creative Arts for Home and Hobby Division. A legal secretary for most of the year, come August she dons a clipboard and lanyard, the uniform of any professional coach.
Bread is the most savory of the baked goods to be judged. I share the dais with Sam the Baker Man, from whom I learn every year something about bread, baking and judging. Sam Valkema is a fifth-generation bread baker and retired owner of Holland American Bakery, operating in Sussex since 1954.
The first time I judged with Valkema, I learned not to be precious when slicing into entries. No matter how intricate the braid or colorful the icing, Valkema grabs hold bare-handed and wields his bread knife straight down the middle. He is a tough critic, looking for flaws and holding all entries to his birthright standard of crumb and spring. A man with sparkling eyes, Valkema can tell you everything you need to know about baking minimal-ingredient bread (cracked rye, malt, water, salt). Last year, the highest of compliments he gave, “We’ve been having some good bread,” made everyone laugh in the tense moments of final judging.
Mother and daughter team Laurie and Elyse Kusma of Vernon have been judging baking for three years. “I always thought about being a judge, but it was really my daughter who got us involved. She inquired and I came along,” Laurie Kusma says. Daughter Elyse Kusma is starting a nursing and nutrition career and sees the baking competition as a break from her goals. “My foremost career goal is to really help people lose weight in a healthy way and eat more fresh fruit and vegetables,” she says, realizing the irony. What all the judges have in common is their seriousness about the task. Some small talk occurs among the folks who only see each other once a year, but when it is time to judge, all energy is focused on feedback and critique.
The chili competition drew me into judging in the first place. Chili has a dedicated pavilion. The Crock-Pots are plugged in at the tables after having been scurried through the fairgrounds on little red wagons. Chili categories include vegetarian, meat with beans and meat without beans. Other than that, creativity takes over as the chefs get to work. A seafood chili entry one year created a new rule: No seafood chili. Fruit often finds its way into the pots, as does chocolate, beer and the most common ingredient: competitive passion.
Baking categories invite adults and kids to enter an array of competitions, from the most simple (from a mix) to highly complex and creative confections. Director Thomas and her troops of volunteers orchestrate the categories and the entrants by age, divide the hobbyists from the professionals and keep straight the tallies identifying who goes home with the glory.
Cheesecake is similarly divvied up by age and category. The most critical first point of judgment: Is it cooked through? Cheesecake requires culinary finesse. Too much heat or time can result in a cracked top; too little, a runny center. A last-minute fruit topping can help disguise a crack, but we judges are savvy to those tricks too. The cheesecake competition attracts more than 30 entries each year, many of them from professionals. “They like the bragging rights,” says Thomas. She also notes that an impressive group of amateurs enter the contest faithfully each year.
Thomas was particularly pleased with the overall number of competitors last year, a group that didn’t seem to be deterred by the August heat wave.
All entries are given equal consideration and are completely anonymous. Only baking is judged away from the eyes of the entrants. Chili, bread and cheesecake are open to the public. Immediately after they are judged, everything is sold—$2 for a bowl for chili plus $1 for cornbread, $2 for a slice for cheesecake. Bread is given away as free samples, and the baked goods are priced and sold a la carte.
Then, the awarding of honors. Ribbons are distributed and prizes are collected; the rooms relax. I’ve never seen tears shed, but I do see familiar faces anxious with expectation. Angela Silletti- Cayer from Wantage won big last year—twice for chili, plus an award in the blueberry contest and another in the baking competition. She is a nurse and has been competing since 2010. “I entered a chocolate cake and I placed third, and then a few years later I tweaked that cake and I was able to get first with it. Then I was hooked.”
Silletti-Cayer appreciates the camaraderie of the events. “It’s nice to come out and to get a feel for what everyone else is doing.” Patrick Taaffe of Teaneck is also a veteran entrant, earning his first blue ribbon last year. “I’m very happy, needless to say. This is the third year I entered, first year I’ve ever won. I was here yesterday too for baking, and I won four first place ribbons. It has been a tremendous weekend.”
Taaffe is not considering a career change. “I’m too old to open a bakery.” But he does offer some advice: “Come play with the dough. It’s fun.”
“We want our entrants to be excited to enter our contests,” says Thomas. “There is nothing more exciting to see [than] the look on our entrants’ faces seeing they won a ribbon. We have bakers who enter faithfully every year, trying out new recipes. Kid entries are the best and we encourage them to enter in every category.”
Registration is open for the 2017 event. Entries are $5 each, although the price increases to $7 after July 21. Walk-in entrants are allowed. Registration information can be found on the website, njsfcahh.com. For more information on the 2017 New Jersey State Fair, happening August 4–13, visit njstatefair.org.