The American Fair
American state and county fairs can credit Elkanah Watson, a wealthy New England farmer and businessman, for their start. Watson showcased his sheep under the great Elm tree in the public square in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1807. To attract attention, he clanged an old ship’s bell with a piece of iron. Watson owned woolen mills and wanted to encourage the local farmers to raise Merino sheep because the wool was of superior quality.
By the late 1800’s most of the country’s largest fairs’ were in full swing: from the New York State Fair in Syracuse to the San Diego County Fair in California (Del Mar), and from state fairs of Minnesota to Texas.
Since then, Americans have attended state and county fairs to see the latest technologies, the best livestock, the biggest pumpkins, the blue ribbon breads, cakes, pies, cookies and more…plus the most thrilling entertainment. Equal in attraction is the enticing “fair-way” foods, such as present day corn dogs, elephant ears and cheese curds!
A longtime champion of touting the newest, the biggest and the best, fairs continue to inspire Americans to discover the diversity and history of their heritage. From horticulture to arts and crafts to livestock exhibits, the talents of the area’s most gifted are featured at the fair. Some of the oldest and most creative competitions are the “Best Recipe” contests. Cookies, cakes, breads, and pies. Oh my!
The tradition of recipe contests is almost as old as the fairs themselves. The contests originally showcased the best of locally-grown food as well as the best local recipes. Almost two centuries later, delicious and interesting creations are entered by both first-time entrants and longtime winners.
We (as the Blue Ribbon Group) have built specialized expertise centered around the beloved annual state fair season. For decades now, regional or national recipe contests and special baking championships have found a stage at fairs across America. We personally have organized partnerships for dozens of food-related companies that led to hugely successful PR events and promotional tie-ins.
If you are with a food related company and think fairs are a good match for you, drop us a note through any of the “Join Our Community” links and let’s talk!
Did You Know
We call it Cotton Candy these days but it was better
known as Spun Sugar when it was first invented.
It was during the Saint Louis World’s Fair of 1904 that fairgoers first ate hot dogs and ice cream cones as they walked. They were the world’s first “fast food”.
Elkanah Watson, called the father of agricultural fairs, gave state fairs their start. A wealthy New England farmer and businessman, he showcased his sheep under the great Elm tree in the public square in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1807.
The nation’s first state fair was held in Syracuse, New York in September 1841. A few years later came the Allentown Fair (Pennsylvania) and Indiana State Fair (1852), Iowa State Fair (1854) and the Minnesota State Fair (1859), among others. The roots of the State Fair of Texas date back to 1886 and the San Diego County Fair to 1880.
Fairs and food have always gone together. The word fair is derived from the Latin “feriae,” meaning feast, and reflects that a feast was the main event at Medieval fairs.
Recipe competitions have always been a highlight of fairs, beginning most likely with canning and preserve showcases. Nothing says “bragging rights” better than a blue, red or white ribbon next to a dish. Competing is often an annual “event” for members of an entire family who cook and bake for days, sometimes weeks leading up to the fair’s pre-registration deadlines and entry drop-off dates.
Butter sculptures originated in 1903 to publicize the dairy industry. Back then they featured cows, barnyard scenes, politicians or celebrities. Up to 880 pounds of butter was needed to create a single, solid cow butter sculpture. Nowadays, sculptures often start with a wood and wire frame instead of solid butter.
There are dozens of food-on-a-stick varieties at state fairs. They now range from the crazy…deep fried butter, candy bars and alligator…to the classic…corn dogs and cotton candy…two perennial favorites.
Rarely do state fairs close their doors. For example, since its inception, the Minnesota State Fair has been held every year with only five exceptions. It closed in 1861 and 1862 due to the Civil War and the Dakota Indian Conflict, in 1893 because of scheduling conflicts with the World Colombian Exposition in Chicago, in 1945 due to war-time fuel shortage, and in 1946 due to a polio epidemic.
Fairs are family oriented events. In 1863 the secretary for the Iowa State Fair wrote, “Do not be afraid to bring your wives and daughters. Parties having ladies in company will receive special consideration from the superintendent of the camp.”
Behind the Blue Ribbons
Who enters and wins? The most typical contestant is a 30-something female. She is often her family’s “home-cook,” preparing most of the meals and baking as a hobby. She is often a “foodie,” a working mom or single person and she likes to impress friends and family with her cooking creativity. Some of these characteristics apply to a growing number of male participants as well!
Youths take part too…in their own divisions or “all age” contests…sometimes outdoing all of the adults, including any longtime contenders.
All special recipe contests at fairs are essentially for the “everyday” cook. In a given fair season, winners have ranged from 40-year-old small business owners and 20 something college students, to 80-year-old retirees with decades of baking experience.
Others contestants–who show the diversity and appeal of competing: an East Coast plastics museum curator; a stay-at-home mom with two children; a nursing assistant at a Pennsylvania hospital; a freelance commercial producer in VT; a 35-year-old loss prevention specialist at the state’s largest casino; and last but not least, a Corporate Vice President in CT.
You never know who has the kitchen creativity and skills to earn themselves accolades!
Robin, a Kentucky State Fair competitor, said her secret to winning is to follow the rules and judging criteria to the letter, plus really try to make the recipe simple. That is how she took home the blue ribbon for her Decadent Ghir-Berry Delight recipe in the Chocolate Championship. Robin is a home-maker who loves to bake, knit, garden and cook.
Stacy was a first time cooking competitor when she entered her “SPAM Fusion Fajitas” at the San Diego County Fair. She then proceeded to win the National Grand Prize, for which Stacy choose the all expense paid trip to the Waikiki SPAM JAM® Festival in Hawaii. “I was in complete shock! I can’t believe I won on my first try,” said Slagor after her local win was announced. Upon learning of her national win: “My inspiration came from SPAM being a “worldwide” sensation. So I wanted to create a recipe with Mexican (fajitas), Hawaiian (pineapple) and Asian (teriyaki) influences.” Stacy cooks more food than her family can handle. She regularly knocks on neighbors’ doors to offer her latest kitchen creation.
Domino won “best pie” out of nearly 100 pies at the North Carolina State Fair. The 39-year old event planner normally cooks and does not bake. Chili is his specialty. His Whipped Nutella Cream Pie was the second pie he ever made. His description of it? “Yummy goodness!”
Winner of more than 4,000 fair ribbons, most of them blue, Alberta of southern California has been rewarded with many moments of fame, including the highlight of her competitive career, appearing on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno in the late 90’s.
Her number one tip is “Have the best ingredients at all times or don’t bother to enter.” Alberta likes to get in the kitchen and play around. “I keep a pad and write down the ingredients and instructions as I add them.” She gets ideas from ordering desserts in restaurants and trying to figure out what the ingredients are. “Then I make it to my own tastes at home,” she said.
Jeff co-owns a cleaning business with his wife Donna, and they are both avid contesters! Jeff’s secret to winning at the New York State Fair is to try something new with every contest entry. His Cherry Cheese Ribbons were just the ticket to a blue ribbon. Jeff enjoys writing, baking, photography and backpacking in his spare time.
This blue ribbon winning 14-year-old made Flourless Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies for the “Kids Cookie Contest” at the Amarillo Tri-State Fair in Texas. Abby comes from a big family so she enjoys baking and using her family as taste-testers. Abby had never entered at the fair before this year. She saw the cookie contest details on the fair web site and thought it would be a fun contest to enter because she likes trying new things. Abby is a 9th grader who likes to draw when she isn’t spending time with her family or baking.
A past blue ribbon winner from the Iowa State Fair was 18-year-old Margaret with her Aloha Tart. The young hobby cook and accounting major enters college this year at the University of Northern Iowa. Margaret currently bakes treats and sends them to her brother at rival college Iowa State University.
Of more than 2,000 entrants at the New York State Fair, Ellen won the coveted “Best of Fair” Grand Prize title. Her advice for entering is to “follow directions in the fair book. If it says ‘typed,’ do it. If it says to attach empty packages of yeast, do it!”
“Fun” ranks high on her list of why she likes to compete. She suggests, “Don’t worry about winning, just think about the recipes you will try and the friends you will make.”
Arlette Hollister was the Superintendent of Foods at the Iowa State Fair from 1984 to 2016. Arlette’s husband “volunteered” her for the job in 1984. An English/speech schoolteacher whose only “D” in college was in foods, Arlette said she learned by “trial and error!” Incredibly, in her 32+ years, she grew the department to be one of the largest in the nation. It’s now Karen McKilligan who holds the reins.
- The Iowa State Fair rightfully boasts having the largest Foods Department of any fair in America. It awards the largest amount of prize money (think tens of thousands of dollars from sponsors), and has literally dozens of divisions and classes.
- When the Iowa State Fair is in full swing (and it will be again), the Elwell Family Food Center has back to back competitions and baking/cooking related events. This is exceptional even for a fair with a million in annual attendance.
- In a given year, the Iowa State Fair takes in roughly 10,000 entries brought in by some 700 + contestants. That is a heck of a lot of cookies, cakes, pies, and breads.
- Arlette was an outstanding promoter and an inspiration to the contestants. Back in the day, she suggested this to entrants: “Be observant of the judging. Watch and listen as the judges give reasons for their selections. It is a learning process. Also, practice. Experiment on neighbors! A new person can win. Just give it a shot!
- Contestants also need to be careful when going through the process of entering. Arlette advised, “Fill out the forms before you arrive. On Cookie Day we have 583 entrants lined up. This is not the place to be filling out forms. Follow the rules. If six cookies on a plate are required, don’t bring 10. And by all means, be on time.”
- Arlette passed away in 2016 at the age of 88. In the decades we worked together, her voice never conveyed anything less than total enthusiasm. When we think of Arlette, we also think “patient and professional.” Thank you for your great contributions to grassroots America Arlette! Rest in peace dear friend!!
My advice to beginning bakers is to keep all your ingredients at room temperature and be sure to measure carefully.
–From the creator of an award winning Graham Bread recipe
In creating recipes, I always try to come up with the “wow” factor to make my dishes stand out amongst the competition.
–From the creator of an award winning Fresh Taste for the Family recipe
My advice to beginning cooks is to get a tried and true recipe, follow it exactly, and branch out from there.
–From the creator of an award winning Dinner Rolls recipe
Don’t be afraid to mix crazy ingredients together like my Cinnamon Swirl Squash Bread.
–From the creator of an award winning Yeast Bread recipe
My advice to beginning bakers is to not be afraid to experiment with new recipes and to be fussy about the ingredients you use in them.
–From the creator of an award winning Sour Cream Coffee Cake recipe
Creating a recipe for the fair is infinitely more fun with your children’s help.
–From the creator of an award winning Kids Cookie recipe
My advice to beginning bakers is to have a good oven that bakes at an even temperature.
–From the creator of an award winning Powdered Sugar Cookies recipe
Don’t be afraid to visit several grocery stores to find the perfect fruit for your pie.
–From the creator of an award winning Pie Baking Championship recipe
When I try out a new recipe, I read it over and over, just like I do with the directions before I cut out a dress (to sew).
–From the creator of an award winning Swedish Ginger Cookies recipe
The best recipe is an old family favorite that you put a new twist on.
–From the creator of an award winning Great Cake recipe
I find the judges’ score sheets given to each exhibitor to be a valuable method for improving a product. I can make use of the negative as well as positive comments. I like to bake anytime-and have been known to bake half or all the night during fair time.
–From the creator of an award winning White Bread recipe
The most important ingredient is “the love.” I love cooking with my kids, grand kids and friends.
–From the creator of an award winning Mac & Cheese recipe
Develop a knack for reading a recipe and visualizing just exactly how it is supposed to look and taste. Don’t skimp on ingredients-use the best. And don’t be afraid to experiment. Add your own special touch to improve a recipe.
–From the creator of an award winning Yellow Daisy Cake recipe
After I was married, I got Grandma’s recipe, which included her advice: “The best way to keep this cake is to hide it.”
–From the creator of an award winning Sweepstakes Sponge Cake recipe
I have been competing at the fair for over 35 years and the best advice I can give is to use the very best products, never skimp.
–From the creator of an award winning Chocolate Championship recipe