Tom Eblen: State fair food judges have an enviable job, but it isn't easy

Stephen Lee, left, culinary superintendent at the Kentucky State Fair, reviewed the recipes of winning cakes with judges Jim Whaley, Janette Chapman and Kathy Byrnes. A recipe must be submitted with each baked item entered in competition.
Stephen Lee, left, culinary superintendent at the Kentucky State Fair, reviewed the recipes of winning cakes with judges Jim Whaley, Janette Chapman and Kathy Byrnes. A recipe must be submitted with each baked item entered in competition.

LOUISVILLE — Stephen Lee was explaining the intricacies of the Kentucky State Fair's culinary competition when a judge interrupted us with an urgent matter: She suspected an apple pie of having a store-bought crust.

This would be a disqualifying offense. Lee, the fair's culinary superintendent, needed to make a ruling.

"It doesn't look hand-pinched, let's put it that way," judge Barb Veigel told him.

"Either that," judge Dan Poset added, "or this person worked for Sara Lee."

Lee (no relation to Sara) agreed that the edges seemed too uniform. "It does look store-bought," he said. Then he turned the pie over in his hand, so it fell out of the tin plate, and carefully examined the bottom. Finally, he said, "I'm going to take her at her word that it's homemade, because the bottom looks pushed together."

The pie didn't taste good enough to be a winner, anyway, so the judges moved on. After all, Lee's two dozen volunteer judges had only two days to taste and decide among 4,312 entries in 328 food categories — pies and pickles, cakes and candy, bread and preserves and canned vegetables.

That is because the 106th Kentucky State Fair opens Thursday in Louisville for an 11-day run that is expected to attract more than 620,000 visitors. Some of the first people through the doors will be those who entered the food, art and crafts competitions, and they can't wait to see whether they won a ribbon.

"People take this very seriously, and the emotions run high sometimes," Lee said of the cooks, bakers and canners who enter each year. "My personal goal is to showcase Kentucky and the talents of its people and to improve the quality of our food."

Lee, who has supervised the culinary competition for seven years, ran a Louisville cooking school before retirement. Each year, he and chief judge Valerie Holland assemble a judging panel of food experts: home economists, chefs, dietitians, restaurateurs and caterers.

Three days before the fair opens, the freshly arrived entries are spread out on long rows of tables covered with butcher paper. With knives and forks in hand, the judges work in pairs, tasting their way from one category to the next. Labels hide the contestants' identities until winners are chosen. Nobody is allowed in the room except judges, staff and the occasional hungry newspaper columnist.

The first day's judging included pickles, relishes, jellies, jams, and canned fruit and vegetables. I was savvy enough to attend the second day, which included candy, bread, 21 categories of cakes and 16 categories of pies. I spent a couple of hours shadowing the cake and pie judges, asking questions and shooting photos. I kept a plastic fork in my shirt pocket, figuring that once the judges' sugar highs kicked in, they would start saying, "Wow! You should try this!"

In addition to taste, the judges evaluated each entry on appearance and texture — the flakiness of a pie crust, the complementary qualities of a cake icing. Did a bourbon cake taste like bourbon without being overpowering? Was a pie filling fresh and firm?

No commercially prepared ingredients, such as store-bought pie crusts, are allowed except in a category for competitors younger than 15. "The idea there is to get kids cooking, even if they have to use a box mix," Lee said.

Women make most of the cakes and pies, but men bake most of the bread, Lee said. Canning and preserving had been on the wane, but young women are now taking up the tradition.

Lee spends time in the off-season refining the food criteria that appears in the fair's inch-thick rule book. But people don't read instructions or follow rules very well — and sometimes they like to cheat. "I had a man enter a sponge cake once and it still had the Kroger label on the bottom," Lee said. "I think he was testing us."

When winning entries are chosen, their recipes are scrutinized to make sure they followed the rules. Judges told me that picking the best in each category is often easier than choosing second and third place.

Each entry is then prepared for display in long rows of glass cases in the Culinary Hall of the Fairgrounds' East Wing. Visitors can look but not taste. "If we could sell this stuff during the fair, we would be millionaires," Lee said. "Everybody wants a piece."

Only about two-thirds of each pie and cake, and about four pieces of each batch of cookies, are put on display. The rest are wrapped and taken to the Cathedral of the Assumption's soup kitchen, which serves 150 lunches to poor people every day.

"That helps everybody feel better about" so much food going uneaten, said Lee, who runs the soup kitchen when he is not on State Fair duty. The baked goods are a treat for soup kitchen clients, who usually are served a lot of bologna. But I wonder if they, too, sometimes grimace the way the culinary judges do.

"I always tell people," Lee cautioned, "that just because a cake's in the state fair doesn't mean it's good."

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