Thursday, 9 August 2012

So, you Think you can Bake?

When the Central Canada Exhibition closed its doors at Lansdowne Park in Ottawa after 122 fun-filled years, we lost an important local culinary tradition that you probably didn't know about.  And no, I don't mean candy floss and Tiny Tom Doughnuts.  It was the Culinary Arts Competition.

What to do with that giant zucchini?  Turn it into a car for
your doll and win a ribbon in the youth category,
If you've ever walked through the Cattle Castle in Ottawa during SuperEx, or a covered building in any county fair, (usually the one without the animals) you may have noticed display cases filled with cakes, pies and cookies with ribbons attached and people milling about, licking their chops and pointing.  This, my fellow city slickers, is the Culinary Arts Competition.

For more than a century, rural women have been showing their prowess in the kitchen by entering this enduring competition, vying for coveted ribbons in the many sweet and savoury categories.  With prizes for everything from chocolate chip cookies to dill pickles, there's a category to match every skill level and age range.

Sadly, over the past few years, I've noticed that entries are dwindling and the competition has lost a bit of its caché. Years ago, baking, making preserves, and feeding your family was done out of necessity and garnered a source of family pride.  These days you're more likely to drive to the supermarket, not descend into the cold cellar for a jar of jam or pickles.
Me taking 2nd Prize in the 2010 SuperEx Apple Pie Contest and Fundraiser.  Left, Max Keeping, right, the successful bidder for my pie!

But take heart!  Some local Fairs still value a well executed pie or cake.  In the Navan Fair's Culinary Arts Competition, for example, you can become the Baking Queen and Princess.  Baking Queen Dominique Deschamps  and Princess Julie Charlebois were the winners of winners of last year's competition.  Along with the admiration of their peers, they got to wear a nifty sash and ride around in a horse drawn carriage and wave at people.

Personally, I nominate Mrs Ivyl Tarbell of Iowa as America's unsurpassed baking champion and ribbon mega winner.  My meagre accomplishments are nothing compared to hers.

I first learned of Mrs Tarbell and her unparalleled achievements in the 1965 edition of McCall's Magazine.  In the ad, she was smiling, surrounded by hundreds of her ribbons, many of which she'd  earned from the granddaddy of all Culinary throw downs, the über competitive, Iowa State Fair.

I felt compelled to phone Mrs Tarbell when I learned that in April, she was a finalist in the Iowa Egg Council’s 27th Annual Cooking Contest.  I wanted to let her know how much I admired her and her accomplishments. 

Not surprisingly, she was as gracious and calm as could be despite the fact that she was dog sitting, using call waiting and helping her daughter with her entries in the Iowa State Fair. She should earn a ribbon for multi tasking. 

Mrs Tarbell began participating in culinary competitions as a young girl, using many of her grandmother's recipes and modifying them for the modern palate. Along with the accolades comes a lot of loot:  the prize money in this years Iowa State Fair Culinary Arts category is a pinch over $64,000.  The first prize for the cinnamon roll competition alone is $5,000.  Needless to say, there's no shortage of competitors.

Mrs Tarbell began entering cooking competitions with the encouragement and support of her grandmother and mother with her mother earning over 5,000 ribbons throughout her life time.  Mrs Tarbell's daughter Robin and her granddaughter Molly are following in the family's illustrious footsteps establishing the Tarbell women as an unstoppable 5th generation ribbon winning dynasty.  Incidentally, she shared with me that her favourite things to make are cookies and candy.  I am in awe of her abilities and modesty.

Alyssa and her baking stand at the Almonte Flea Market
Closer to home, in May, I met Alyssa Toshack selling her delicious home baked goodies at the new Almonte Flea Market.  She's a consistent ribbon winner at the Almonte Fair and her Babycakes Bakery is doing a brisk business. 

If you'd like to start your own culinary dynasty or just want to give it a go for fun, here's how the competitions work.  First, for a small fee, you need to become a member of the Agricultural Society governing the region's fair.

Second, you need to register for the competition and choose which categories you'd like to enter. Along with the Fair sponsored entries, manufacturers of baking and preserving products like Tenderflake, Certo, Robin Hood and Bernardin sponsor categories in which their products must be used. The prizes they offer are often quite generous with special gift certificates and coupons to buy their products.
Alyssa's fruit tarts

If you think your grape jelly or chocolate chip cookies are any good, trust me, the judges in these competitions will tell you the truth and set you straight!  Members of the Homecraft Committee, or the Womens' Institute are a wise, skilled group of women who take their judging seriously   Just remember:  the rules are strict.  You should follow them to the letter to avoid disqualification.

If you like to bake, why not enter some of the categories yourself and start your own culinary tradition?  Luckily there are still a few country fairs in nearby towns that still offer Culinary Arts Competitions.

Who knows?   You may become Canada's next Mrs Tarbell!

Good luck and good baking!
Navan Fair Culinary Arts Competition   Almost 100 baking and sweets categories to test your abilities.

Carp Fair HomeCraft/Womens' Institute  Entries for this year's fair are closed but you can still visit the exhibits during the fair.

Richmond Fair  About 75 baking categories including many for children, and a wine and beer making competition.

Metcalfe Fair    Sixty-five categories of baking plus preserves, wine and beer and some quite generous payouts and prizes for the winning entries.

If pie is your speciality, and you want to win big, you should enter Port Elgin's Annual Pumpkin Fest Pumpkin Pie Competition where the top prize in the Pumpkin Pie category is $100. The contest isn't until September so you have a month to practice your pumpkin pie recipe.

The Almonte Fair, now in its 154th year, offers about 70 awards including many for children 7-18.

You should also visit The Ontario Fairs website for a complete listing of Fairs and baking competitions throughout Ontario.


Lost in Provence said...

Seeing this right before falling off to sleep is going to give me sweet dreams--pun intended! ;) And I love that picture of you too!

Nadine said...

Yes, I am reading in bed too. Dreaming of how my baking is going to turn out tomorrow night. I am entering the Dunnville Fair Baking contest on Wednesday!! Very good article too!!