As you may know, if you happened to read my article CATCHING FAIR FEVER (September, 2012), one of my more recent discoveries amongst community-type cookbooks are those published by state and county fairs throughout the USA.
I suspect there are hundreds—perhaps thousands—of these cookbooks that I know nothing about (intriguing thought, isn’t it?). Well, if you stop to consider there are fifty states, therefore there are (presumably) fifty state fairs every year (does anyone know if Alaska and Hawaii have state fairs?) – and then there are all the COUNTY fairs throughout the USA every year—and who knows how many counties make up our fifty states?
Back in the 1980s I “discovered” the fun and charm of entering the San Fernando Valley and the Los Angeles County Fairs. (I had really gotten into canning around this time and loved finding and trying unusual recipes for jellies, jams, and preserves). At this time, I also “discovered” that the Los Angeles County Fair Home Arts committee published the winning recipes if your entry won a first, second, or third place ribbon. The winning recipes for one year (say 1986) would then appear in a nice spiral bound cookbook the following year, in 1987. These cookbooks were sold for only $10.00 each and when I started to win some ribbons and received an invitation to submit the winning recipes—I was off and running. And the cookbooks made wonderful Christmas presents.
I wrote “discovered” in quotes because I felt like a Johnny-come-lately to this kind of cookbook – which I feel is more accurately described as regional cookbooks than community. I began searching for all of the Los Angeles Fair annual cookbooks and then began searching for other state and/or county fair cookbooks and acquired some from Iowa, some from Texas and others from Del Mar, California. What a bargain these books are! Not only do you have all of the prize winning recipes, the books are usually thick compilations of recipes, for an average price of ten dollars.
However, I have a couple of equally great bargains to share with you. First is BLUE RIBBON WINNERS/AMERICA’S BEST STATE FAIR RECIPES by Catherine Hanley. When I first saw Ms. Hanley’s book, I thought “aha! I’m not the only one who has realized what a treasure trove the winning recipes from state fairs are!”
Ms. Hanley, former manager of consumer public relations for the Pillsbury Company, made an interesting discovery in her line of work involving the Pillsbury Bake-Off contest. Upon checking the biographies of some contestants who were superb cooks and bakers, she realized that a pattern emerged—many of these contestants were also state fair winners. As an enthusiastic fan of the Minnesota State Fair, Ms. Hanley had been interested in state fair competitions for many years. The idea for her book was, to quote the publishers, “a natural result.”
BLUE RIBBON WINNERS/AMERICA’S BEST STATE FAIR RECIPES contains over 170 of the best blue ribbon recipes, carefully selected for this book. Says the author, “During years of working with food, I have been intrigued by what happens when two people make the same recipes with contrasting results. Why does one person turn out a spectacular product and another an indifferent one from the same ingredients? Experience and cooking techniques obviously play a big part. (Italics mine—this is the very same thing I have been exploring for several years, what the Chinese refer to as Wok Presence, recently written about on my blog).
As British author Eden Phillpotts suggests (in her quote, ‘No mean woman can cook well; it calls for a generous spirit, a light hand and a large heart’) – but how do you convey this information in a recipe?”
Hanley continues, “As I have had opportunities to learn about the women and men who win blue ribbons in the major state fairs, I realized that here you have a large group of people who are consistently achieving extraordinary results with recipes similar to those we all use. What is special about their recipes and what do these cooks do to make the prize-winning difference? That’s what every other cook really wants to know and BLUE RIBBON WINNERS reveals.
In possibly the only noncommercial cooking contests left, tens of thousands of women and men compete annually in state fair competitions to see who has the best baked goods, pickles and preserves.
The money prizes are modest, not much more than covering the cost of the ingredients (true!) – but this is not important. What these good cooks want are the blue ribbons that signify first place.”
Ms. Hanley goes on to explain that winning blue ribbons at the biggest state and regional fairs in the country are not easily won—judges are often agriculture extension service home economists or college-level food teachers, professionals who know how to measure quality and who have been trained to be objective. Also, she explains, that where commercial recipe contests may reflect the preferences and biases of judges and contest sponsors, state fair judging is done “by the book”—using scorecards, with a perfect product scoring 100%.
The author goes on to explain how her work with the Pillsbury Bake-Off contestants led to her discovery that contestants were often state fair entrants as well. She also explains how, before she learned otherwise, she assumed that the people who entered the fairs would be mostly rural homemakers. Now, she says, she knows that competition cuts across socio-economical boundaries, and in states where the fair is held in a metropolitan area, suburban and urban men and women contestants predominate, and vary in ages—from the youngest age allowed (14 years old in Minnesota)—to octogenarians.
Having told you this much, let me add that the recipes to be found in BLUE RIBBON WINNERS are some of the finest in various categories—there are pies and pastries, cakes, yeast breads, quick breads, cookies, candy and snack, sweet spreads, pickles and condiments.
Another feature of BLUE RIBBON WINNERS that I find especially valuable and interesting is that in the prefaces of each chapter, the author provides us with a closer look at judging criteria—for instance, the explains that the crust, in pies at a state fair, may count for up to 45% of the total score for a two-crust pie. She provides lots of tips for fair-competition wannabees” and cookie baking advice from a many-time winner.
I like the style of the recipes, which include the name and hometown of the winners—I even found a recipe for my absolute favorite candy recipes, (Cranlets—like aplets only made with cranberries) – that I can’t wait to try.
BLUE RIBBON WINNERS/AMERICA’S BEST STATE FAIR RECIPES certainly is a winner, one you will want to add to your cookbook collection. But wait! I’m not finished yet!
Do all of you remember the fabulous BROOKLYN COOKBOOK? Well, coauthors Lyn Stallworth and Rod Kennedy, Jr., returned to cookbook publishing with another winner, this time the title of their book was THE COUNTY FAIR COOKBOOK. Says Bernard Clayton, Jr., author of COOKING ACROSS AMERICA, “I had hardly begun the delightful COUNTY FAIR COOKBOOK when a powerful urge came over me to (1) visit every fair in my part of the country, and (2) immediately7 go to the kitchen to prepare Minnie Briese’s Potato soup (North Dakota) and Liverity Davis’ chicken pie (Louisiana).
I know how Mr. Clayton feels. Since I started reading these two cookbooks I have made numerous forages to the kitchen to mix cookie dough, bake a ham, and search for my candy thermometer.
State the publishers of THE COUNTY FAIR COOKBOOK, the American county fair! Its tractor pulls and rodeos, racing pigs and three-hundred pound pumpkins, boisterous midways and—food. Nothing brings out the best in the nation’s regional chefs like a county fair, and this jam-packed collection of authentic American foods is a cooking connoisseur’s culinary dream come true. Ranging across all fifty states (with an excursion into Canada), THE COUNTY FAIR COOKBOOK visits the fairs in each region and serves up the personally tried-and-true recipes of devoted fair-participants.
Also, each region features its own distinctive specialties, so that—when in Maine, you may encounter Yankee Johnnycake, while when you read about southern fair favorites, you may find goodies like Georgia’s sweet potato pudding.
This is far more than just a cookbook, though. Each fair that is featured in the book is accompanied by a brief synopsis of that fair, and even directions for getting there! There are lots of photographs taken at fair grounds throughout the country, from the tallest Ferris wheel in the western hemisphere (State Fair of Texas, in Dallas), to Doctor James Kemp judging country hams (Marion county in Kentucky); there is the happy face of a junior winner leading a Hereford bull (Rockingham County fair in Virginia) and square dancers at the Yavapal county Fair in Prescott, Arizona. For those of us on the West Coast, the Orange County Fair and Riverside County’s National Date Festival are featured. I was nonplussed to find a recipe from the Orange County Fair Centennial cookbook of 1992—this is one of the cookbooks I lost in the 1994 earthquake.
Farther north, the Big Fresno Fair is featured along with the Calaveras County Fair and Jumping Frog Jubilee. Throughout, there are lots and lots of yummy sounding recipes that you will want to try, knowing they are all winners.
If you’ve been to some of your local fairs, I know you will enjoy these books and delight in having at your fingertips hundreds of the blue ribbon recipes. If you haven’t been to a fair, you will surely want to read THE COUNTY FAIR COOKBOOK to get an idea what’s in store for you…and who knows? Maybe next year, those will be some of your blue ribbon winners!
You can find BLUE RIBBON WINNERS on Amazon.com, new for about $15.95 and pre-owned for one cent and up. The COUNTY FAIR COOKBOOK is available on Amazon.com at $3.50 new, or one cent and up for pre-owned.
Both books are available on Alibris.com starting at 99c.
Reviews by Sandra Lee Smith