Win a State Fair ribbon in 5 easy steps

This is the year, people, the one in which you establish your foodie cred with the ultimate badge of honor: a Minnesota State Fair ribbon in one of the Baked Products or Canned and Preserved Foods categories. You may already be able to hook a walleye, milk a cow, and harvest your own wild rice, but those talents won't inspire nearly the same sense of awe as these shiny fabric honors.

Here are our tips on how to increase your chances of success in ribbon snagging. If you're a past winner, please add your suggestions in the comments.

1. Make sure you're eligible. People who have won waaay too many times to still be considered amateurs (that means you, Marjorie Johnson) are no longer allowed to compete. Specifically, an exhibitor who has received first premium at three successive Minnesota State Fairs will have to sit on the sidelines.

2. Choose your categories Okay, there are a few strategies people tend to go with for this one as they flip through the list of categories. A) Pick a lot in which you excel: Have a family recipe for chokecherry jam whose worth exceeds that of your potential inheritance? Or a special dish that always brings rave reviews or suggestions to launch a food business? How about a pie, pickle, or porter you make that brings something unique to the category? B) Pick a big-payoff category: Those with corporate sponsors--C&H Sugar, King Arthur Flour, Pillsbury--have decent-size cash prizes. SPAM's National Grand Prize pays out $2,000! C) Pick an "easy" category. The more obscure the lot, the less fierce the competition. Skip the strawberry jelly in favor of crab apple; forget the spaghetti sauce and focus on zucchini relish.

Still having trouble? Ask an esteemed winner for suggestions. While each exhibitor is limited to one entry per lot, and a total of 25 entries (special contests not included), if you're going to win, you might as well max out your chances.

3. Start cooking! Practice, practice, practice. Run your top contenders by a trusted test panel until you have your recipe just where you want it. Remember, only foods that are the product of the "home" kitchen will be eligible. No mixes, etc. Also, no fruit (canned or fresh), flowers, cream, cream cheese, sour cream or items requiring refrigeration can be used, with a few exceptions for items judged immediately.

4. Register and drop-off your goods Entries close 12:00 noon, Wednesday, August 18. All canning, baking, and special contest entries must be pre-registered by 4:30 p.m., Tuesday, August 10. No entry fee required.

The Creative Activities Building will be open to receive articles beginning Sunday, August 15, from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Articles entered must be delivered to the Creative Activities Building by 12:00 noon Wednesday, August 18, in the Canned and Preserved Foods category. Entries in the Baked Goods category will be received on Sunday, August 22, from 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m.

5. Cross your fingers... There's nothing you can do now but sit back and wait. The exceptionally ambitious will go back to step one and start getting their entries ready for next year.

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