On the other side of the table – Iowa State Fair

With every presentation I made as a 4-H member, getting to the Iowa State Fair was my goal. Each year, I did my best, yet it was never enough to go beyond the county level. The judges always chose someone else, and I was always disappointed. I spent some time railing against the unfairness of the judges, let me tell you.

Seventeen peanut brittle entries waiting for the judges.

Seventeen peanut brittle entries waiting for the judges.

As an adult living only four miles from the fairgrounds, the allure of the State Fair remains strong. I’m always eager to attend. A couple of years ago, I entered a quilt and earned a third place ribbon. For once, I was delighted.

It didn’t occur to join the judging ranks myself until this year when Des Moines Register columnist Kyle Munson announced on FaceBook that he was looking for judges to join him for the new peanut brittle competition.

Peanut brittle is one of my favorite candies. I make it every year. Seemed like those were qualifications enough to judge. I signed up.

When the day rolled around, I was ready. And excited. And hungry.

Seventeen entries greeted us. A respectable number for the first year, and a number we figured two judges could get through in the hour allotted. Volunteers supplied plates, napkins, and damp clothes, along with crackers and water to cleanse our palates. A writer sat beside each judge, to record our comments, tally scores, and keep things moving.

Spectators filled the chairs, leaning forward in anticipation, straining to hear our words, watching our faces as we sampled from each plate. Some hoping, no doubt, to be judged the winner. With their eyes on me, I felt the weight of responsibility.

The task was more challenging than I imagined it would be. Judging is a subjective task, maybe more so when it comes to food. The score sheet with it’s weighted percentages for Taste, Texture, and the nebulous Other Considerations gave some structure to the process. But even with that, there were so many reasons to have different opinions.

  • Was the best peanut brittle the one that was most like the recipe I make and love dearly?
  • Was it one of those with unexpected ingredients, like dried Kalamata olives or cayenne pepper and mustard or the perennial State Fair favorite bacon?
  • Or one of those stretched so thin with forks you could almost see through the brittle?
Judging at the State Fair level is serious business.

Judging at the State Fair level is serious business.

As it turns out, 17 entries is a lot to judge in only one hour. One little taste of an entry, savor the flavor, consider the texture, note whether it stuck to my teeth, take into account how it was presented. Make comments. Assign scores. Eat a soda cracker. Drink water. On to the next entry.

After we evaluated each salty/sweet brittle individually, Kyle and I went behind the curtain to discuss and decide on the final winners. We emerged with three ribbon winners and an honorable mention. The crowd applauded the results. The blue ribbon winners cheered.

Judging peanut brittle taught me a lot. Being a judge is tough. You want to be fair, you want to reward the best, but best is relative. I can be more empathetic with the judges that kept me out of the State Fair all those years ago. I still don’t like it, but I empathize with their challenge. And I empathize with those who entered full of anticipation and didn’t win. Judging can be as bitter sweet as entering.

In case you’re wondering, we awarded the blue ribbon to a wonderful peanut brittle that included a hint of coconut and was served up in a little red bucket with tissue paper. I’ll be trying that secret ingredient myself come the holidays.

Passing on the scone tradition

Samantha's Girl Scout troop relishes a fresh-baked Lemon Poppy Seed Scone.

Samantha’s Girl Scout troop relishes a fresh-baked Lemon Poppy Seed Scone.

Holiday traditions usually pass down to the next generation. But this holiday, our family passed a tradition both down the line and back up.

My sisters and I were in 4-H where we spent many hours practicing for and giving demonstrations on everything from baking bread to ironing shirts. Demonstrations gave us opportunities to organize our thoughts, present in front of groups, and learn that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. My sister’s granddaughter Samantha is a Girl Scout. Girl Scouts also give demonstrations and recently Samantha chose to demonstrate making Lemon Poppy Seed Scones.

This scone recipe was a favorite of my sister Jane. Jane taught her daughter Clorinda to make the scones. Clorinda taught her daughter Samantha. Samantha taught her Girl Scout friends. The tradition passed down just like it’s supposed to. Somehow in all that time, I never made those scones. But when I heard about Samantha’s demonstration, I figured it was time. Especially when she shared her exact way of doing it.

Following Samantha’s directions, I had success on the first time. Thanks to Samantha, the scone tradition has come back up a couple of generations. Here’s the recipe if you want to give them a try. And if you want to enjoy them in the true English way, serve them warm with strawberry jam and clotted cream. Yum!

Lemon Poppy Seed Scones

COMBINE: 2 cups flour, 1/4 cup sugar, 2 tsp baking powder, 1/2 tsp baking soda, 1 Tablespoon poppy seeds,  1/4 tsp salt

CUT in 1/3 cup cold butter

ADD 3/4 cup milk and 2 Tablespoons lemon juice.  The dough will be soft.

TURN dough onto a floured surface. KNEED gently six times. SHAPE into a ball. PAT into an 8-inch circle slightly smaller than the thickness you want your scones. CUT into wedges. PUT on a greased baking sheet. SPRINKLE with sugar

BAKE at 425 degrees for 12-15 min. until lightly browned.

NOTE: As described, this recipe yields eight large scones. You can make two or even three circles from the same amount of dough, yielding 16 or 24 scones.