A friend’s 40-year-old daughter recently opted for fair food as her birthday meal. I totally understand her choice; fries with vinegar have that unique, once-a-year flavor. Hamburgers and milkshakes taste different at the fair; and lemonade, shaken into deliciousness with sugar and an actual lemon, quenches thirst in a special way. Anyway, when and where else do we have the chance to savor a good sugar waffle?
There is, however, another type of food at the fair. Unavailable for sale or consumption, this fare beats the heck out of anything deep-fried or on a stick. Fairgoers need only stop by the Horticulture Building at the Champaign County Fair for a mouth-watering visit at the baked goods display.
My childhood days at the county fair invariably included trips through both sides of the old Horticulture Building, located east of the midway. The decorated jars of canned goods in the Grange exhibits fascinated me; the roses and zinnias the garden ladies brought in impressed me; the crowded displays of items on the shelves assigned to the Scouts caught my eye.
But I lingered at the culinary exhibit, making sure to locate every item my mother had entered in the baking competition. Among the plates of three cloverleaf rolls, loaves of yeast and quick breads, and assorted two-layer cakes, I searched for Mother’s entries – and her ribbons.
Some years back my siblings unearthed a trove of Mother’s fair ribbons, which I used to piece together the history of her culinary competitions. With the help of her mentor, Betty Crocker, I think Mother taught herself to cook after she married in 1947. My father often teased her about her first biscuits, the ones the dog buried; but, by golly, she won first place at the Ohio State Fair with her 1963 version of baking powder biscuits.
According to her ribbons, Mother began baking for the county fair in 1954 and by 1959, her final year locally, had garnered a collection of almost 40 blue, red, and white ribbons. A year later she won 11 awards by exhibiting at both the county and state fairs.
For the next four years Mother entered the state fair contest only, ending her competitive career in 1963 with this incredible showing recorded in the UDC: “Mrs. Carleton H. Scott of Urbana route three won 19 prizes in baked goods competition at the State Fair. Mrs. Scott reported that she had won six firsts, six seconds, three thirds and four fourths.” Cowabunga!
I cannot explain why Mother began or stopped competing, nor do I know why she sometimes entered nothing; farm duties and pregnancy were undoubtedly factors. I can, however, provide a glimpse into life on River Road during competition time.
Many exhibitors specialized; Mother was more eclectic, signing up for almost every category. She always thought she had assembled all needed ingredients, but I recall more than one “flying trip” to Urbana for vanilla, nutmeg, or another dozen eggs.
Baking days became baking nights. Some mornings we found on the kitchen table times scribbled on the backs of envelopes about when to “punch down” the yeast dough for raisin bread or butterscotch rolls. Coffee cakes and banana breads had been turned out of pans; layers of devil’s food and coconut cake awaited frosting; we marveled at rolls of Boston brown bread and an apricot-prune upside-down cake.
She tried new recipes for rye bread and Swedish limpe – and won. In the early years she baked things rarely part of today’s culinary conversation: burnt sugar cake, hickory nut cake, maraschino cherry cake. Her cornbread and gingerbread became family legends; she regularly made Swedish tea rings, a specialty she first baked for the state fair, as reunion food and teacher gifts.
My father was the man behind the baking woman. He assumed packaging and transport duties, mainly because he could solve any dilemma with baler wire and twine string. He covered baked goods, fitted the car with flat surfaces, packed everything, and arrived in Columbus with 19 prize-winning items unscathed.
I do not know what drove my mother to compete, this otherwise self-deprecating woman often unnecessarily insecure about her skills. Her best friend and former nurse’s training roommate, Virginia McConkey, entered competitions in Clark County and also at the state fair; they compared notes and celebrated each other’s victories.
I think my mother liked to challenge herself. She was always looking for the next best recipe and read cookbooks like I read novels. She was quite intelligent, as evidenced by her position as class valedictorian and her double-the-required-score on the LPN state board exam. I think baking contests allowed her to push herself to a position where she could enjoy a modicum of pride in her accomplishments.
My sister has always mirrored Mother’s sense of competition. Even when she had three small children, worked full-time, and advised a 4-H club, she found a way to enter scads of outfits and costumes in two sewing shows at the county fair. These days she sews for granddaughters and a grand-dog but continues to challenge herself at the fair by trying new things and submitting her efforts for evaluation.
There is a story behind every entry at a county or state fair. My favorite story is the one about a family tradition passed down from a parent who found joy and success in making another kind of fair food.