Food & Drink

Chew On This: My blue-ribbon strategy for canning

Food writer Andrea Weigl enters the canning contest at this year’s N.C. State Fair with a clear strategy in mind: Choose categories with little competition.
Food writer Andrea Weigl enters the canning contest at this year’s N.C. State Fair with a clear strategy in mind: Choose categories with little competition.

I usually help judge the canned foods competition at the N.C. State Fair. This year, I decided to enter.

My strategy was simple: Choose categories with little competition. In other words, forget about entering strawberry jam or peach preserves.

This year’s contest had 41 jars of strawberry jam. That’s too much competition.

One note: These contests involve blind judging. The only identifying information on the jars is a numerical code, so judges do not know who entered them.

I decided to try to win a ribbon because the crabapple jelly that I wrote about earlier this year was so tasty and beautiful. I figured there couldn’t be many home cooks making crabapple jelly these days, and even fewer entering it at the fair. Unfortunately, when I reviewed the rules, I realized I had canned my jelly in the wrong size jar.

So I went with Plan B.

I chose fig preserves, reasoning that the fig crop was down this year due to the ice storms that damaged many fig trees in the area. I also pulled out a jar of Jerusalem artichoke relish. Jerusalem artichokes, also known as sunchokes, aren’t a common vegetable. You don’t really see them at grocery stores. You may see them at the Carrboro or Durham farmers markets. More likely, if you are making the relish, it’s because you have a Jerusalem artichoke patch in the backyard, like I do.

My strategy worked. There were seven entries in fig preserves and only two in artichoke relish. I won two blue ribbons.

This logic can be applied to many of the state fair contests.

N.C. State University food scientist Ben Chapman, who oversees the food preservation contest, said there are always few entries in conserves, apple juice, berry juice, Jerusalem artichoke pickles, dried foods and apple rings. And, he added, very few children or young adults, ages 9 to 18, enter canned goods in the junior competition.

If you like to bake, don’t enter your chocolate chip cookies, banana bread or pound cake. Try fruit cakes, jelly rolls and angel food cake, which Denise Walker, the fair’s competitive exhibits director, said typically draw fewer entries.

In the special cooking contests, organizer Lisa Prince said, the ones involving pork and beef typically draw the fewest entries. In comparison, this year’s apple recipe contest attracted 56 entries.

Now, I’m not saying that if you believe your pound cake or strawberry jam is ribbon-worthy that you shouldn’t enter it. Go ahead. But while you are at it, consider strategically choosing some other categories to increase your chances of a ribbon. That way, all that effort won’t be a bust and you can still strive for a ribbon.

One note about my blue ribbons: I will have to share one of mine with chef Ben Barker, who owned the now-closed Magnolia Grill in Durham. He gave me the recipe for that prize-winning Jerusalem artichoke relish.

I don’t know now whether I’ll be bitten again by the blue-ribbon bug. Maybe I’ll judge again next year. Or maybe I’ll can crabapple jelly in the right-size jar and enter it. Maybe I’ll bring along a jar of strawberry jam.