Farm cooks vs. city gal? No contest

The San Diego County Fair is in full swing, and I promised you a story about competing in the food contests, so …

I was a young reporter on my first job in the Indiana heartland. My beat was education, but also general assignment, which on a small-town daily paper meant I could write about pretty much anything I wanted. But we were in the county seat, so when the annual county fair came around, all of us did fair stories.

Born and bred in New York City, I didn’t know much about county fairs. Midway games, rides, cotton candy, oh, and something to do with livestock. My co-workers rapidly brought me up to speed on 4-H and the many different contests that were integral parts of the fair.

When someone explained the food competitions, a little spark went off. “Why don’t I compete? City slicker vs. the home folks. It could be fun,” I volunteered. My boss agreed.

Looking over the contest categories, I was disappointed to see that there was no category for eggplant parmigiana, one of my specialties at the time. OK, I’d enter something else. Canning? No. Preserves? Nope. Baking? THAT I could do.

I chose banana bread, which had its own category. I had made banana bread before, and it had turned out fine. How hard, really, could this cooking competition stuff be? Maybe I’d enter a few other categories, too, like apple pie and brownies, and take home a pile of ribbons.

But time got away from me, and the night before the competition, I completed only one item, the banana nut bread. The recipe was from my lone cookbook at the time, a paperback Fannie Farmer. And the bread turned out just fine, a burnished brown block of banana goodness.

I brought it to the fairgrounds as a contestant that morning, and returned later in the day as a reporter to observe behind the scenes of the baked-goods judging.

The judge was a slim young woman named Dee Ann Cabell, a 10-year 4-H member at the time who had majored in home economics at Purdue University. She had been judging at fairs for about seven years, doing about six fairs a year. And she knew her stuff.

When I arrived, she was finishing with the white and wheat breads. Cabell looked each loaf over and evaluated its shape and color. She then took a small taste, served to her by one of the culinary committee members, who were hovering like nurses around a surgeon. She made her notes, then commented diplomatically (because many committee members were undoubtedly also contestants), “All of those are really nice.”

Next came the crescent dinner rolls, several to a plate. Cabell addressed the first entry. The end point of one roll was too short; another curled below the roll’s bottom. “These are not uniform,” she noted. “Also, there’s too much flour on the bottom.” Another roll was chided for its uneven size and browning.

That’s when I realized that my banana bread and I were in trouble.

What the city slicker hadn’t known was that there were standards governing what made a prize-winning dinner roll, a perfect pie crust. To enter the brownie category, for example, you had to submit six. They had to meet the criteria of the category (not too tall! not too pale! not too airy!), and they had to be identical in shape, size and color. Taste was just one factor among many.

Finally, the banana breads were up. Cabell looked at my sturdy brown loaf, sliced into it, and instantly sighed, “She didn’t mash her bananas enough.”

(Talk about judgment. I’d now be known around town as “Laura, the lazy banana masher.”)

Cabell also declared my bronzed bread was too brown. (Those pesky standards again.) To soften the blow, she added, “Good flavor, not dry. Good outside appearance, good inside characteristics.”

Clearly, my bread and I had been knocked out of the running. “At least it didn’t make her sick,” I muttered to Carol Evans, general chairwoman of the Women’s Exhibits. “Give it time to reach her stomach,” Evans said dryly.

Cabell worked her way through 117 entries that day over four hours, and not only didn’t she get sick, she said she’d never been made ill by a fair entry. She tried to say something positive about every entry (see above), and even if something looked awful, she said, she ate some of it, because it would be “really insulting” if she didn’t.

Though my banana bread hadn’t measured up to those of much more experienced cooks, the story turned out well and my boss was pleased.

And I had been soundly educated by these modest farm women. What looked so deceptively simple turned out to have depths and nuances I had never even considered in my youthful arrogance.

I did compete again at subsequent county fairs, but not in the culinary division. I planted a big garden the next summer, and won blue ribbons (yes, I did!) for my six uniform green beans and my three identical bell peppers.

But I still wish I’d been able to enter that eggplant parmigiana.

Here’s the Fannie Farmer recipe I used for my fair entry. Just remember to mash those bananas thoroughly!

BANANA NUT BREAD

Mix in a bowl

3 ripe bananas, well-mashed

2 eggs, beaten until light

Sift together

2 cups flour

3/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

Add to the first mixture. Add

1/2 cup nut meats, chopped

Stir well. Put in a buttered loaf pan 9 by 5 inches. Bake 1 hour at 350 degrees.

Note: Some like to add 2 tablespoons melted butter to the batter.

(c) copyright Laura Groch 2013

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