I just wrapped up my third year of working with Lisa Prince of the state ag department, WRAL’s Local Dish, and Flavor NC on PBS. At the State Fair I help judge some of the specialty contests. These are the competitions sponsored by entities such as King Arthur flour, SPAM, and the North Carolina Pecan Growers.
It’s a huge honor, and more fun and food than any one person should have, but somebody’s gotta do it, and I will proudly take this bullet on behalf of the people of North Carolina.There are folks that have been doing this for years and have judged 20-30 contests. I’ve only done nine, but have learned a few things. About entering cooking competitions, and a few other random truths. I’ll start with those unrelated, incidental lessons.Traffic and parking: However long it takes to get from your house to the fairgrounds on the odd, non-fair Tuesday, quintuple it. For weekend fair days, multiply it by six or seven. For opening or closing day, just spend the night before out in the parking lot.
When sampling sixteen or seventeen pies, take no more than two bites each. If you feel unable to control yourself with an especially delicious entrant, get it away from you. And even those two bites can add up. Post-judging, it’s probably best to dial back the midway munching. Maybe only have one turkey leg, and either ice cream or funnel cake, but not both.If you plan to enter any type of cooking contests, I have a few tips. They may not give you the win, but sometimes the difference between placing and being an also ran is quite narrow, and this advice may give you a few extra points.
Flavor and seasoning: Taste, taste, taste. Make sure your food is seasoned. If it’s a processed food such as SPAM, be careful your dish isn’t too salty. Other foods need more salt. There’s no way to get it right without tasting. Acid is your friend. Dishes should have balance. Rich, fatty foods need something to break them up, and the best way is by adding the acid of citrus juice, vinegar, or tangy dairy such as yogurt, sour cream, and buttermilk. It will make your dish stand out in what can be a sea of mouth-coating, stomach-churning, heaviness.Make your dish at home, over and over, tweaking the recipe as needed. Get your most brutally honest friends and family to give you feedback. The girlfriend that doesn’t want to hurt your feelings is doing you no favors if she will not tell you the truth. On your end, if you can’t take criticism and comments, contest cooking is probably not for you.If you don’t like the theme ingredient, pick another competition. In the SPAM contest, the kids made their entries all about the SPAM. Many of the adults tried to hide it. Bad idea. You must embrace the food and celebrate it. This isn’t a game of, “How to get the kids to eat liver without realizing it”. It’s to elevate and showcase the chosen ingredient.
Read the brief carefully. You might make the best cupcake anybody’s ever eaten in the history of cupcakes, but if the instructions are to make a breakfast item, you will lose. It will probably break the judges’ collective hearts to eliminate your cupcake, but they, and you, have to follow the rules.
I have seen winners who’ve been cooking for decades, and others who’ve only been at it for weeks. So my final advice is—go for it!Thanks for your time.