Last week, I marveled at jeweled jars of fig, strawberry and plum preserves. I admired wafer-thin slices of dried peaches and pears stacked inside Mason jars. I tasted pickled cherries, green tomato pickles and even dried kiwi and persimmon.
I have judged a lot of cooking contests, including those at the N.C. State Fair. But I had never judged the fairs canning contest until that Tuesday. The contest is serious business with almost 1,300 entries, 20 percent more than last year.
I consider myself an experienced home canner. My pantry is stocked with more than 100 jars of pickled peaches, damson plum preserves, chowchow and more. This summer, I made watermelon rind pickles three times trying to perfect a recipe. (Do you have any idea how long it takes to peel and carve the rind from a watermelon?) I am also writing a cookbook for UNC Press Savor the South series on Southern pickles and preserves.
Despite all that experience, I feared the other canning judges whom I envisioned as older ladies who have been canning for decades would find my expertise lacking. I had nothing to fear. My fellow judge was Matt Shipman, a former restaurant cook and food writer and now science writer at N.C. State University. Shipman explained the rules and put me at ease. It turns out judging this contest requires common sense and a copy of the rule book.
Over the course of four hours, we judged the preserves and dried foods entries. At the end, I was lucky enough to help judge the best in show.
We checked each jar of preserves to make sure it was processed for the minimum five minutes. We verified that each jar was filled to about 1/4-inch from the top. Then we moved on to how the contents looked and tasted. There were a few misses, but the majority were good to excellent.
Preserves can be tricky. They are supposed to have discernable berries or chunks of fruit. If you cook them too long trying to get the honey-like consistency of the syrup, the chunks of fruit can dissolve. Then you have jam, not preserves.
In judging the dried foods, I was amazed by the obvious care that some contestants put into the entries. Fruits and vegetables were sliced paper thin and doused with lemon juice to preserve the color. Herbs were cut to specific lengths and attractively arranged in jars. Beef jerky was sliced into mind-bogglingly uniform 1-by-4-inch pieces.
Finally, I got to peruse the blue ribbon winners in the pickle category, which were best in show contenders. If you have ever made pickled okra, you know how hard it is to get enough okra to fit the exact height of the jar. The same goes with whole pickles. But there they were: jar upon jar of the most attractive pickles Ive ever seen.
The experience left me in awe of the level of talent among home cooks in this state. A few of them were kind enough to share the recipes that really blew me away. While you may not have had the chance to judge, with a little work, you can have a chance to taste.
For a printable copy of the recipes, click the links:
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