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

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.

See also: 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.

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

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.

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

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.  

Rita Knudson and Sharon and Gary Johnson wait for the results.
Rita Knudson and Sharon and Gary Johnson wait for the results.
Patrice Johnson

It is Friday, the second day of the 2014 Great Minnesota Get-Together, and in the stale air of the Creative Activities Building a few elderly ladies are perched on benches and scooters, cooling themselves with fans-on-sticks. In front of their roost is the staging area where a short line of competitors waits to drop off dishes for the Spam Championship.

Sharon and Gary Johnson are there for more than just the Spam results. They're looking in the display cases that line the back walls to find their winning items. This year Gary ribboned for 16 of his 20 jam and jelly entries, and Sharon won a third place ribbon for her Bisquick entry, a chocolate fruit pizza.

While some couples will always have Paris, Sharon and Gary will always have the fair: "We knew we were meant for each other on our first date," Gary explains. "We were eating in a loud restaurant and I couldn't hear anything she was saying. The first words I heard were 'State Fair.' We've been together ever since."

They started competing in the canning contests the same summer they learned to can. "We had raspberries growing in our backyard," Sharon said, and the raspberries went into their first State Fair entry. Their second year of competition they earned third place in blueberry jam. Sharon also began eying the baking contests and since then she's ribboned in many, including a Blue Ribbon for her Ranch Dressing Rolls the year that Fleishmann's Yeast sponsored a Bake for the Cure category. Sharon, a breast cancer survivor, said, "I entered because I wanted a pink ribbon!"

"You get addicted to the ribbons. It's an obsession, and to be competitive you have to enter all 20," Gary explained. He enters the maximum number allowed in canning each year. "It is all about the ribbons. It isn't about the money."

Sharon laughed and disagreed, "Actually, yes, it is about the money!" While ribbon winners in everyday canning and baking contests receive nominal awards, the winners of sponsored contests can earn hundreds of dollars.

"It is also about doing your best. You see the same names every year doing well in the competition and it is an honor to compete against these people." While Gary downplayed the amazing number of ribbons he's won over the years it became obvious that he is an icon in the Minnesota State Fair canning community. Just as I designated him the Marjorie Johnson of canning, a woman walked up to our triad and did a double take.

"Are you Gary Johnson?" the woman asked, incredulous at coming face-to-face with a canning celebrity. "I don't know the faces but I know the names," our new companion, Rita, tells us. Looking at Gary she says, "You work magic."   Anyone can be a State Fair Person, but in the world of Minnesota State Fair competition there are names you remember and cliques of greatness it is impossible to join without a wad of ribbons in your back pocket. Here are some of the State Fair folks vying for those ribbons and a place in the State Fair history books.

Rita Knudson, Golden Valley Rita's first Minnesota State Fair competition was in 1989. She's been entering multiple lots ever since and has ribbons for knitting, mosaics, baking, flowers, Fairy Gardens (yes, you read that right!), and canning. Her teenaged son took an interest in canning and now Rita sells at the Golden Valley Farmers Market to get rid of excess jams.

What Rita likes best about competing in the State Fair: "It is really satisfying. Everyone does their best. You cannot get upset about not winning. It is all about being part of the fair."

Rita's State Fair Inspiration: Charlotte's Web.

2014 Canning Ribbons: White Ribbon (3rd Place) in Jellies, Plum; Red Ribbon (2nd Place) in Jellies, Not otherwise specified

Lisa Bond with daughter Becca, Shoreview Lisa got a photograph into the Fine Arts exhibit on her first attempt (anyone who knows about fine arts at the fair appreciates what a tough gig that is to access.). Then she experienced a three-year shut out and decided to try a different angle.

2014 entries include: Lisa's Great Grandmother's Christmas cookie cutouts ("I give a lot of recipes out, but not this one!") shaped as Minnesota for the occasion and caramel chocolate pretzel blonde brownies that I nearly ran off with.

Lisa's State Fair Inspiration: Chasing that elusive ribbon.

Jean and Randy Monson, St. Paul Jean and Randy started baking at noon on Friday and finished at 3 a.m. on Saturday, arriving in the State Fair drop-off line 24 hours after their baking odyssey began. Laden with bars, cupcakes, muffins, dinner rolls, and brownies, Randy said, "We had time to do it." A non-State Fair person might not see it that way.

Most awesome non-MN State Fair Sponsored activity: A group of Jean and Randy's friends are all competing in the ginger cookie contest, and planned to meet the first evening of the fair to taste and compare cookies and ribbons won.

2014 Baking Ribbons: Blue Ribbon (1st Place) in muffins, 2 White Ribbons (3rd Place) for gluten-free yeast breads and whole grain dinner rolls, and 4th and 5th places for low-fast banana bread and banana bread.

Liz Paetow waits in line to drop off her entries.
Liz Paetow waits in line to drop off her entries.
Patrice Johnson

Liz Paetow, Montrose Liz has been competing for 10 years in both county fairs and the State Fair. She's got ribbons under her belt for cakes and bread.

State Fair Secret: Liz perfects her recipes at the county fair level before bringing them to the State Fair.

2014 Baking Ribbons: Blue Ribbon (1st place) for German chocolate cake, and White Ribbon (3rd place) for thumbprints.

Dani Daniels with sons Logan, MacGuirie, and Carter, Mayer While Dani is new to State Fair competition, her boys have entered paper and paint projects. In fact, their love of Paul Bunyon and other Minnesota icons inspired some of Dani's entries including cookies, apple pie, and zucchini bread.

State Fair Prodding: Dani's mom and grandmother wanted her to enter.

What the boys are most excited about: Corn dogs.

2014 Baking Ribbon: Gold Medal Flour Cookies "New Entrant Award"

Lori Timmeran, Rochester Lori comes from a family of State Fair champions. Her great-grandmother was an Iowa State Fair Grand Champion and her mom competed in Minnesota. The family is known for their bread, jam, and cookies.

Fun Fact: Lori's jam has won Best of Show at the Olmsted County Fair.

Pre-drop Off Prep time: Friday, 2 p.m. until midnight.

Sarah Deppe, Prior Lake Sarah rolled up to the drop-off line with a stroller loaded with breads and brownies, and no child. Her one-year-old was brought to his grandma's on Friday afternoon so Sarah had time to bake. This is Sarah's third year of Minnesota State Fair competition and she's already got a Blue Ribbon for her pumpkin quick bread.

First Year drop-off claim to fame: "I was in line behind Marjorie Johnson!"

State Fair baked item most happy with: Brownies.

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