The thought first crossed my mind when I was little and my parents showed me Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s “State Fair.” The movie was so retro and romantic, showing a family traveling to the fair with dreams of winning a blue ribbon. The thought crossed my mind again last summer at the Erie County Fair. Visiting the exhibition rooms, I marveled at all the bounty our county can offer.
Just a few weeks ago, I had the thought again. This time, it had fire and fervor.
I want to enter something in the fair!
Maybe I could bake a pie. I thought I remembered that from “State Fair.” I could cook up a cherry pie, with a ton of sugar and a pretty lattice crust. Maybe I could even try another baked goods category. A loaf of bread, a coffee cake.
Maybe I, too, could win a blue ribbon.
Pie in the sky
Does anyone know anyone who ever entered anything in the Erie County Fair? I asked that question on Facebook last summer. It seemed nobody did.
Now I am thinking there might be a reason for that.
For one thing, you enter online, and the website is not intuitive. Plus, for a novice, it’s easier said than done.
Scouring the fair’s online list of competitions, I found a lengthy canned goods category but no baked goods. On July 22, the deadline to apply, I called the fair.
It was like April 15, when your taxes are due. Paula Smith, competitive exhibit manager, had a kind of hotline going for anyone who needed assistance.
She had a simple answer to my baked goods question. There was no such category.
“You’re kidding,” I said. “Since when?”
Since a couple of years ago, it turns out.
“But what about ‘State Fair’?” I asked.
“They have refrigeration,” was the answer. Probably they thought I meant the New York State Fair.
We got talking, as Buffalonians will. And I asked her: What was the weirdest thing anyone entered in a competition?
“Last year we had a 12-foot knitted whale,” she said. “We’re like, ‘Where are we going to put that?’ This woman was cool! We did a spot on it, how much filling it took, how many skeins of yarn went into it. And she had to bring it in a truck. It’s a whale! She was a young girl. Who knits any more? She did a full-sized baby giraffe that sits in the building.”
I joined in her laughter. But it seemed strange that the fair could accommodate a 12-foot whale, but not a cherry pie.
Smith kindly suggested photography. But instead I decided on jam. I’d started canning one hot summer after we ran a story about it in our food section. Actually, I could have done both. For $20, you get five tickets to the fair and a green light to enter any categories you like.
Online again, I was distressed to see I had to commit to what type of jam I would make. Tossing the dice, I put down plum jam. Then, wouldn’t you know it, I learned at the Clinton/Bailey Market that it was a good year for peaches, but not for plums. I ended up getting plums at Save-a-Lot at the Broadway Market.
I had a lot of fun for that $20. It had been a few years since I’d made jam, and I’d forgotten how much fun it was. I made two kinds. One of them I christened Blackheart Plum Jam, because I mixed in some Blackheart rum. For the other, I threw in spices. Maybe this one could be Professor Plum.
I made Howard, the guy I married, try both jams multiple times. But then the plot, like the jam, thickened.
Andrew Z. Galarneau, The News’ food editor, put me in touch with Karen Gold, a master jam maker who has won multiple blue ribbons. She gave me some shocking news. The judges never taste your jam. Instead, they study it.
“They take the jars, and they will turn them very slowly,” she said. “They look to see if all the pieces are all the right size, all evenly distributed. For the jams and jellies, they make sure they’re clear and jelled. They make sure it’s the proper headspace.” Headspace is the empty space beneath the lid.
Every year, it turns out, the judges choose one category to taste. Last year, it was applesauce. (Gold won.) This year, it’s bread-and-butter pickles.
I decided that if my plum jam had a prayer, it lay in prettying up the jar like crazy.
Right before the jam was due in Hamburg, I dashed to Dollar Tree. I bought some ribbon and did the best I could. I had a busy work schedule and wound up working on the fly, borrowing scissors, curling the ribbon in searing sunlight as the jar grew heated, then hot. What if it boiled? What was I doing in the sun, anyway? They always say to store jars in a cool, dark place.
Also at the last minute, I needed a label for the bottom of the jar. That meant a dash to Office Max, where I poured a few more bucks into my new hobby, competitive jam making. The label required my competitor number. What number? Panicked, I called the fair, where a patient person looked it up. It was 50,000-something! How many people were I up against?
Lastly, I learned that the jar was to be plain, not decorated. I ripped off the ribbons. A text came in from my mentor, Karen Gold. She gave me directions to the fair building and offered encouragement.
“Good luck goofy first-timer!” she wrote.
The big day
“Our state fair is a great state fair! Don’t miss it – don’t even be late!” Rodgers and Hammerstein were on my brain as I voyaged across the Skyway.
My friend Lizzie went with me. She accompanies me to competitions. She was with me in 1999 in Texas for the Van Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition, and a few weeks ago for the Celebrity Cheese Building Competition at Buffalo’s Italian Heritage Festival. Both those competitions were peanuts next to this one. Helplessly, we circled the fairgrounds, asking directions. Finally – finally! – we found the sign “Fair Offices,” and, inside, long tables where you signed in.
Any frustration quickly evaporated.
What a feeling, to be part of this!
Paula Smith, the exhibits director, had told me that a lot of the promised jam never turns up.
“People say they ate it, or the jar broke in the parking lot, or something,” she said.
But me, I had done it. I had delivered my jar. And I felt part of an elite company.
Exquisite workmanship was everywhere. There were finely crafted wreaths and quilts. My eyes feasted, enviously I have to say, on an exquisite jar of raspberry jam, its seeds sparkling.
One of the fair’s staffers, Terri Szuflita, saw me gazing at the artistry around me.
“This is my favorite part of the fair, people making, doing, growing flowers, raising their animals,” she said.
What was the weirdest jarred item they’d received? I had to ask.
“Someone made pickled leeks,” Szuflita recalled.
“The pickled leeks were phenomenal,” chimed in a colleague of hers, Thomas Olszewski.
Pickled leeks. Why hadn’t I thought of that? Well, maybe next year. And why stop with canned goods?
“For $20, you can do anything,” Szuflita said. “You can do canning, you can do arts and crafts, you can do all kinds of things.”
We all can. Keep that in mind as you’re admiring the competitive exhibits at the Erie County Fair. Next year, that could be you.
But fair warning: You’ll be up against me.
The preparations for next summer start now.