Ribbon Junkies: Behind the scenes at the State Fair food competitions

Categories: State Fair

Robert Couse-Baker
We may disagree about corn dogs versus pronto pups, where to find the best cheese curds, and which political candidate deserves our vote, but most Minnesotans agree that there are two kinds of people: State Fair People and everyone else. Drop off an entry for a State Fair competition and it is a safe bet that everyone in line is a proud self-proclaimed State Fair Peep. Nothing gets a gathering of State Fairers more excited than talking about the State Fair. Approach us with caution.

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Fantastic food at the Minnesota State Fair 2014 [SLIDESHOW]

Competition for Minnesota State Fair Creative Activities begins months before the Fairground gates open. Each year on the first Monday in May, the Creative Activities Premium Book is released online and by mail. Competitors comb through the book, studying rules and selecting categories. Competition is split into divisions: Needlecraft, Garment Making, Handcraft, Collections, Work of Senior Citizens, Baked Product and Special Contests, Canned and Preserved Foods, and Homebrewing.

Each Division is split into departments (such as Quick Breads or Ethnic Baking), and departments are further divided into lots (such as Banana Bread, Coffee Cake, and Muffins; Cookies, Bread, and Crisp Bread). There are hundreds of lots to choose from, and competitors in baking and canning categories are limited to 20 total entries in each of those divisions. Yes, this is serious business.

Patrice Johnson
Sarah Deppe with her stroller full of contest entries.

Registration takes place all summer long. For bakers and canners this is when the real work begins as they decide which recipes to use and then perfect them. For bakers the final sprint of competition occurs during the days and hours prior to delivery day -- which happens the weekend before the State Fair begins. Hundreds of home cooks pack their goods and head to the fairgrounds, where they stand patiently in the drop-off line, making friends and discussing recipes. Contestants carry cardboard boxes reinforced with duct tape and rubber tubs the size of caskets; they push strollers and pull wagons carrying dozens of bundts and chiffons, cookies and brownies, quick breads, yeast rolls, and ethnic goodies using recipes passed down from grandmothers.

Former ribbon winners are mostly treated with reverence and awe, although I've heard my share of grumbling in the drop-off line. A few years ago a couple of bakers complained about past winners being a bunch of former Home Ec teachers: "They shouldn't be allowed to compete in the amateur contests." One woman, when learning I'd won a blue ribbon and that my day job is at the University of Minnesota, turned to me with a pointed finger and an accusatory tone. "Are you a nutritionist?" she asked, practically spitting the word "nutritionist" at me.

Patrice Johnson
Local legend Marjorie Johnson and Andrew Zimmern at last year's State Fair.

I get it, I really do. But those repeat ribbon winners are characters who add to the legend and allure of The Fair. I ought to know. I've had the snot beat out of me every single time diminutive firecracker "Blue Ribbon Baker" Marjorie Johnson competes in one of my lots.

The drop-off line winds along and one by one the contestants enter the hallowed ground (a.k.a. front door of the Creative Activities Building) where State Fair workers sort the baked goods according to lots. Rows of stunning cakes, breads, and cookies are stacked on tables filling the warehouse. After judgment day, the losers will feed some hungry pigs at an undisclosed farm. Perhaps those happy pigs later become corndogs, thus fulfilling their roles in the State Fair Circle of Life.

Ribbon results are released when the Creative Activities doors open to the crowds on the first day of the fair. Tradition has many competitors waiting to weed through the display cases to see if they've ribboned while modern competitors use their smartphones to download the results. Learning that you've earned a coveted Blue, Red, or White is worth the wait regardless of which means you use.

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