The Iowa State Fair wrapped up on Sunday. In the course of 11 days, contestants participated in 11,278 events, competing in everything from cattle to cup cakes, jazz to jam, dressage to desserts. Keeping it all straight and just as important, on the up and up, is no easy task. A friend and I learned that when we sat in on the judging of the “I have a secret ingredient” competition.
The gist of this contest is that competitors bring everything they need to make a main dish meal on the spot. Before they begin, they’re presented with a surprise ingredient they must incorporate into their dish. In this case, a bell pepper. But as it turns out, the bell pepper would be the least of their challenges.
There were four competitors. Two of the women were the two who had taken first and second in this event last year. These women were calm, confident, and seldom smiled. The third woman was a student in the culinary arts program at Des Moines Area Community College–our favorite only because we talked to her in advance of the event. The fourth competitor, a man, arrived moments before the competition began, pulling a cooler on wheels and juggling several additional bags of utensils and ingredients.
As the competition unfolded, we provided our own running commentary of each participant’s effort. We were impressed that our student was not flustered by the fact that the fair-supplied electric skillet didn’t work. We were astounded at the quantity of ingredients the man chopped and diced. We wondered when, if ever, he’d get around to actually cooking something. The two seasoned competitors completed cooking and plated their dishes (an Hawaiian pork chop with rice and a lamb with Feta cheese tostada) before he even put patties in the skillet.
By the time the judge had evaluated the first two entries, our student was ready to go. Except she wasn’t aware she had to provide a written copy of her recipe. So she sat and wrote it while her shrimp congealed in a cooling Alfredo sauce. The man was still chopping ingredients and from time to time molding everything together in his hands. My friend questioned whether she wanted anyone handling her food that much.
Finally, our student’s dish was evaluated. Finally the man actually cooked what turned out to be buffalo sliders. Finally, he arranged everything on a plate, topped one slider with a little paper umbrella for good measure and presented it to the judges. Only to realize he hadn’t written down his recipe either. At least all was equal. His entree was cold before the judge tasted it, too.
Finally, the judge was ready to announce her decision. Fourth place to our student. Third and second to the other women. Before the judge could walk to the end of the table to award first prize to the man and his buffalo sliders, the seasoned competitors filed a protest. Much hushed discussion by the judges. A senior fair official was called in. More hushed discussions.
Finally, an explanation and a decision. The rules clearly stated that everything on the plate must be edible. The man’s paper umbrella was not. Therefore he could not win. Ribbons were retrieved. Awards re-presented. Last year’s winners were this year’s winners. Our student took third. The man went home with an honorable mention.
Proving at the very least that fair competitions today are every bit as serious as they were when Aunt Bee entered her infamous kerosene dill pickles in the Mayberry Fair. Proving once again that it is often the little things that undo us. Proving as well that it is not wise to mess with people who know the rules by heart!