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!

Fun(ny) Fact: Recipe contests used to be considered a women’s competition. In 1903 one writer called the contests “monuments to housewifery.” Now the contests have grown to include everyone, inspiring generations of families to enjoy competing in this age old American tradition.

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.

In recent years, national recipe contests and special baking championships have found a stage at fairs across America. We personally have organized partnerships with dozens of food companies that awarded generous prizes for original recipes featuring their products.  These PR and promotional tie ins led to thousands of popular contests in the recent decades.

We (as the Blue Ribbon Group) have built a niche focused on state fair recipes contests and promotion. 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 get connected!

–Cyndi

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!

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

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