I’ve been honored to have been asked to help judge the State Fair’s Home & Craft Department’s Baked Goods contest for the past three years. This year I thought it might be fun for you to take a peek behind the scenes as I talk to some fellow judges about the process.
To begin, about 36 of us from all walks of life assembled Monday afternoon at the Moore Building, waiting to get paired into teams and begin the Herculean task of selecting the ribbon-worthy entries from hundreds of submissions in the Baked Goods contest. The process can literally take hours to complete, what with 188 separate food classifications within the overall division (for example, there are 16 classifications of bread made with yeast, 12 classifications of pie and each classification has multiple entries). I’ve learned to skip lunch on judging day and to drink lots of water afterward. Green salads work great, too, when trying to counteract the overabundance of sugar in the system.
After being assigned a partner and a classification, we head over to our specified table and a supervisor begins bringing over plates of baked goodies. Unless you specify a choice, you can be assigned anything: biscuits, candy, cookies, breads or pies.
Our job: judge according to the criteria of appearance, texture, and above all, taste.
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It sounds easy enough and sometimes the judging IS easy and there’s a clear winner. Sometimes we will go back and forth on the taste or texture or if the sample is under- or over-baked. We try to be fair. First- and second-place ribbons are handed out according to mutual decision. In between samples, we cleanse our palate with saltines and water.
Around the two-hour mark I’m glad that I’ve worn my stretchy pants because even though we’re only taking a bite (or two) of each entry, those bites add up fast.
One thing you must keep in mind, these are blind tastings: there are no names attached to the samples, and we never know who has submitted the entry. The identities of the winners are kept secret from the judges until the Fair opens.
Brenda Turner is the Superintendent of the Home & Craft Department of the South Carolina State Fair.
For the past three years, she has been organizing the contests for her department that includes food (baked goods, canning and special baking contests) and crafts (miniature displays, hobbies, woodworking, quilting, ceramics, etc.) as well as 4-H and senior (older than age 70) and youth (younger than age 18) divisions. She herself has been a judge for 25 years (her favorite category is yeast breads).
How does she go about selecting judges? She tries to assemble a mix of folks with some ties to food or the food industry. There are chefs, extension agents, home economics teachers, restaurant owners and bakers as well as a few people from the general public who do a lot of baking and canning.
What are the basic rules for judging? While each division has its own criteria (usually broken down into appearance, texture, creativity and originality (if it is a decorated cake or cookie)), flavor is the key and always wins out in the end.
Has the contest changed over the years? Not much. There are more decorated cakes because people are getting into that. And there always seem to be a lot of cookies, probably because they’re the easiest to bake.
What’s your favorite part of the fair? Love the whole general atmosphere and putting this together for the community. When you see people get excited because they see a ribbon next to their name or the name of someone that they know, it’s a joy.
Scott Thurber is the owner of D’s Wings in Cayce. This is his first year as a judge.
Favorite division to judge? Pies
Favorite thing about judging? It’s a lot of fun and would like to do it again.
Any tips for would-be entrants for next year? Take your time with the appearance because you eat with your eyes first. And make sure that your entry is in the correct category.
Mae Wells is a retired Clemson Extension agent, has a degree in Home Economics and has been a judge for more than 40 years
Favorite division to judge? Canning. Years ago you opened the jars of jam and jelly and tasted them. Today, because of sanitation issues, we judge on how the canning process has been completed. (An experienced judge can look at the jar and tell the age of the product, whether or not there’s too much or too little room at the top of the jar and if the canning process was done correctly.)
Favorite memory or most spectacular thing you’ve seen at judging? Coming back and seeing other retired extension agents, it’s like a reunion. The most spectacular thing is seeing the variety of cakes and people’s creativity and imagination. If you miss coming to the Fair, you miss something special.
Any tips for would-be entrants for next year? Follow your passion. If it’s baking or canning, be creative and express yourself. If you enjoy it, you’ll be good at it. Food is an extension of yourself, so take your time.
Alexis Zeigler is heading to the Culinary Institute of America in Upstate New York in January where her specialty will be baking and pastry. She works at Chocolate Gems, in Asheville, N.C., making truffles, caramels, gelato and sorbet. This is her first time as a judge.
Favorite division to judge? Pound cakes
Favorite thing about judging? It’s a lot of fun. She came with her grandmother who has been judging for many years. Feels like she’s been doing it for years herself (said after about the 20th sample).