The Copp family of Gray have won many ribbons for their food entries at the Cumberland County Fair. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

 

It’s the season for agricultural fairs, and that means it’s time to dust off your favorite family apple pie recipe. Or maybe your specialty is muffins chock full of wild Maine blueberries, or creamy, delectable fudge made in imaginative flavors.

Some Maine cooks and bakers have become downright pros at catching the fair judge’s eye and racking up the ribbon count and modest cash prizes. Others do it just for fun, and for the opportunity to make new friends and polish their techniques.

No matter what the motive, fair time is a great time to nurture that latent competitive cooking streak and get creative in the kitchen. Go ahead, make a mess. Let the flour and sugar fly.

We spoke with several home cooks and bakers who regularly enter the food contests at southern Maine’s two most popular fairs — the Cumberland County Fair and the Fryeburg Fair — about their experiences, and asked their advice for people dreaming of winning their first blue ribbon.

 

NORMA C. “SUNSHINE” KING

HOMETOWN: Lovell

AGE: We promised not to tell.

OCCUPATION: Retired, but still works part-time teaching swimming.

FAIR OF CHOICE: Fryeburg Fair

Why she does it: King lives 25 minutes from the Fryeburg Fairgrounds. Her late husband Richard, a firefighter, worked security at Gate 9 for 30 years, so they attended the fair together every day. “When the fair comes around, I’m telling you, it’s the most joyous event in my life,” King said. “The greatest thing about the fair is the people. And why? Because people are happy.”

Longest winning streak: When it comes to winning ribbons, King has serious street cred. She estimates she’s won 700 ribbons at the Fryeburg Fair in the four decades or so that she’s lived in Maine, and “a good 75 percent are blues.” But she says she doesn’t like to show them off because she doesn’t want to scare young people away from entering the contests. 

Now that’s dedication: King enters all five days of baking competitions, which means that every year she must bake a two-crusted apple pie, a blueberry dessert, a whoopie pie, fudge, a rotating baked item (this year, it must be cranberry-orange coffee cake), and a decorated cupcake (this year, the cupcake theme is kids’ birthday celebrations). “The whoopie pie has always been a bugaboo for me,” King said. “I think I’ve won it once.”

Prep work: King bakes with apples from her own small orchard, and blueberries from her own bushes. Entries cannot be served warm to the judges, so she often rises as early as 3 a.m. to start baking so her entry will be cool by judging time. King hums along to “semi-classical” music or plays Christmas music while she bakes. “I always have to sing away while I’m baking because it’s such a happy experience,” she said.

Her specialty: King prefers “natural” ingredients and bakes with reduced sugars and fats, or none at all. “I don’t use white sugar,” she said. “That’s deadly.”

Animal lover:  Every day of the fair, King spends an hour or more after her baking competition visiting the animals. “Every animal I have to pat and say hello,” she said.

Advice for newbies: “If you enjoy baking at home and you would like a challenge, then enter that challenge with confidence. And if you present the best you can do, then you’re already a winner, and you don’t have to have the blue ribbon.”

 

Becky Copp and her son Brendon pose with the many ribbons they have won for their food entries at the Cumberland County Fair. Becky, Brendon and her other son Tyler have been entering food contests at the fair for a decade. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

BECKY COPP

HOMETOWN: Gray

AGE: 41

OCCUPATION: Stay-at-home mom who home schools (and bakes with) her two sons, 15-year-old Brendon and 18-year-old Tyler

FAIR OF CHOICE: Cumberland County Fair

Why she does it: Mother and sons started entering the fair’s food contests together — youth and adult divisions — when the boys were under 10. Over the years, Tyler and Brendon have made everything from crab apple jelly — using crab apples from their grandparents’ tree — to pickled green tomatoes, made with their own tomatoes. They’ve each won the youth apple pie contest once. “I’ve had to come up with ways of being pretty thrifty, being a stay-at-home mom,” Copp said, “and I want them to be pretty self-sufficient when they get older.”

Becky’s Personal Best: Last year, she entered the bread contest for the first time, baking a loaf of white bread speckled with herbs she grew herself. It was, she says, “probably the fifth loaf of bread” she’d baked in her life. She placed second.

Friendly competition? Copp wanted to pick the brain of the woman who won first prize in the bread contest for tips and tricks, but “she didn’t want to speak to me. That’s fine.”

Baking disaster: Tyler knew right away last year that he was not going to win the Bakewell Cream biscuit contest. He forgot to put the butter in his biscuits. His mom and brother had better luck. Becky won first place for dill pickles made with her own cucumbers, and Brandon won first in the Maine Maple contest youth division.

He’s a good bro: One year, both boys entered the King Arthur Flour baking contest, which requires entrants to submit UPC codes from the King Arthur products they used. Tyler made muffins, and Brendon made snickerdoodles. Brendon’s code blew away in the wind on his way to register his cookies. Tyler gave his little brother his own code so he could still enter, and Brendon ended up winning second place.

Bonus points: At home, if the boys want, say, chocolate chip cookies, they bake them themselves instead of buying them or bugging their mom to do it for them. And the contests, plus volunteering at the fair, have given them confidence. “They talk about (their baking) and people ask them questions,” Copp said. “For a teenager to just sit down and talk these days is pretty rare. They just sit down and talk on their phone and grunt, but my kids will talk to anyone.”

Advice for newbies: “Go for it. I mean, what do you have to lose? It’s fun. You get to put your finished product out there for everyone to see. We need some of the younger generation to start putting things into fairs.”

Becky Copp’s prize-winning pickles. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

ALISON HYNES

HOMETOWN: Cumberland

AGE: 60

OCCUPATION: Grooms and trains sulky horses for harness racing

FAIR OF CHOICE: Cumberland County Fair

Home field advantage? Hynes, who won last year’s apple pie contest, actually lives in a mobile home on the fairgrounds for six months of the year. But it took her decades to climb her way up to a blue ribbon. She entered the fair’s very first apple pie contest in the early 1980s and won second place. She’s been shooting for first place ever since. Part of the problem has been her crust, which has a good texture but often doesn’t seal well and leaks. “A lot of times it’s the apples that you use,” she said, “and I think last year I used an assortment of apples and that helped.”

Her inspiration: Her mom, who taught her how to bake. “She was big in 4-H when she was growing up,” Hynes said, “and if we wanted any treats when we were kids we had to do it, so I started making pies.”

A finger in every pie: Hynes took second place in the Maine Wild Blueberry muffin contest one year, but her heart belongs to pies. She made apple pies in high school and froze them unbaked as a Christmas gift for her brother, and she makes them for friends. “I just like to bake,” she said.

Charity bake: Hynes usually brings a pie to the fair contest even if she knows she won’t win because the fair auctions off the top three pies for charity, and sells the rest by the slice. “The more pies they had, the more money they would make.”

Flavor notes: In addition to apple pies, Hynes likes baking blueberry, raspberry and pumpkin pies — “all the Maine pies. At Christmas, I make a pecan pie.”

Where’s her cherished blue ribbon? Hynes keeps it hanging over the kitchen sink where she can see it every day.

Advice for newbies: “Appearance is good, but the filling has to taste good.”

 

Dawn Grondin shows off her second- place apple pie at the 2018 Fryeburg Fair. Photo courtesy of Dawn Grondin

DAWN GRONDIN

HOMETOWN: Bethel

AGE: 43

OCCUPATION: Occupational therapist and pre-K teacher

FAIR OF CHOICE: Fryeburg Fair

First try: Grondin and her daughter entered a parent-child baking contest at the Fryeburg Fair five years ago. They made “brookies” — cupcake tins filled with chocolate chip cookie dough topped with brownie batter — and came in sixth out of 15 entries.

2018 was a good year: Grondin’s fudge won first place, her apple pie placed second, and her whoopie pie took fourth.

Best part: Chit-chatting with other contestants about recipes. “It’s like a big family when you go there,” Grondin said. “It doesn’t even feel like a competition.”

What’s her secret: “Think outside the box, but don’t go to an extreme,” she said. Her first-place fudge, for example, wasn’t chocolate or peanut butter, but key lime margarita fudge with a sea salt and sugar sprinkle. For her apple pie, she cooked the apples in a little Southern Comfort before adding the filling to the pie crust. She also used an egg wash and food coloring to paint a fall scene on the crust. And instead of a chocolate whoopie pie sandwiched with white frosting, Grondin made a pumpkin whoopie and filled it with maple-bacon frosting. “Most of us who placed in the top four tried to do something a little different,” she said.

Advice for newbies: “Take the chance. Don’t overthink it. Don’t worry about the ribbon. Just do it for the fun of it.”

 

LINDA HANSCOM

HOMETOWN: Westbrook

AGE: 66

OCCUPATION: Retired registered nurse

FAIR OF CHOICE: Cumberland County Fair

A family affair: Hanscom and her husband, Michael, started entering fair food contests after wandering through the exhibition hall and thinking, like so many people do, “I could do that.” They’ve been competing for at least 15 years.  Michael Hanscom focuses on canning.”Baking contests seem to inspire me because they have bigger prizes,” Linda Hanscom said, laughing.

Sweet victory: Last year, Hanscom’s maple oatmeal cookies won second prize: a half gallon of maple syrup and a basket of maple products. “It was wonderful, and that was just entering six cookies,” she said.

The intimidation factor: Hanscom makes strawberry, blueberry and apricot jam for the fair competition. Over the years, she and her husband have entered pickled beets, zucchini relish, sour pickles, applesauce, canned tomatoes, bread-and-butter pickles and dill pickles. But Hanscom hasn’t yet entered the fair’s famous apple pie contest. “I don’t know why,” she said. “Maybe I’ll do it this year. Sometimes I feel a little intimidated when I look at those pies, and those crusts are better than mine.”

Materials recycling: Hanscom also enters fair contests that are not food-related, so she builds up a stockpile of ribbons, bringing home perhaps 35 per year. Once home, she takes a photo of them, then gives most of them away. (She’s tried returning them, but the fair won’t take them back.) Her grandchildren get some to play with, and the rest go to her daughter, who is an occupational therapist at Maine Medical Center. She uses them as prizes for patients who do well in their therapy.

Advice for newbies: “Don’t be too worried if you don’t win anything. Don’t take it too seriously. Just do the best you can. Sometimes it takes a little bit of practice before you learn what they’re looking for.”


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