2 Charlotte sisters snap up cooking ribbons at the N.C. State Fair

Mary Fuentes, 16, of Charlotte with her wining Autumn Apple Cake.
Mary Fuentes, 16, of Charlotte with her wining Autumn Apple Cake. NCDA

The N.C. State Fair is about the whole state. But let’s face it: When it happens in Raleigh, it mostly stays in Raleigh.

Every once in a while, though, Charlotte gets a taste of the action. So let us present the Fuentes sisters, Mary, 16, and Maggie, 11, avid cooks and the daughters of Catherine Mitchell Fuentes, a medical anthropology professor at UNC Charlotte.

Monday was the judging of the fair’s annual Apple Recipe Contest, put on by the N.C. Apple Growers Association and one of 11 cooking contests at the fair. Each year on fall break, the girls go to the fair with their grandmother, Lou Mitchell, who lives in Raleigh, and they usually enter one of the contests. This year, both entered the apple contest, Mary with an apple cake and Maggie with an apple gelatin salad.

When second place was announced, it went to Maggie, for her Fall Apple Salad.

Mary was a little disappointed, according to her grandmother. They all figured it wasn’t likely both girls would win. But they prepared to put on happy faces for Maggie.

Then first place was announced: Mary, for her Autumn Apple Cake.

“They were both jumping up and down like they were on pogo sticks,” said Mitchell. “When you enter and get any kind of ribbon, it’s really an achievement.”

Now, does anyone really want to share their moment of glory with their sister? Actually, the Fuentes sisters, who both go to Hickory Grove Christian School, were fine with it.

“It was pretty cool that we both got it,” Mary Fuente said. “I definitely didn’t think we would both win at the same time.”

“They are very, very close,” says Mitchell. “It’s ‘support each other’ all the way.”

This isn’t the first time the Mitchell family has scooped up state fair wins. Lou Mitchell is a dedicated cook who has racked up 70 or so cooking ribbons. She got Mary and Maggie started on it when they were little. Mary snagged her first ribbon when she was 7, for a variation on Rice Krispy bars. Maggie grabbed her first ribbon when she was 9.

Both Lou Mitchell and Catherine Fuentes say the credit for the girls’ cooking gene goes to Mitchell.

“They didn’t get it from me,” Fuentes says. “I order takeout and microwave a lot.”

Fuentes is a single mother, so when the girls are out of school, they spend summers with their grandmother in Raleigh. Lou Mitchell is a certified wildlife rehabilitator, so there are baby squirrels and opposums to feed. Their grandfather, Burley Mitchell Jr., is the retired chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court and now works for the legal firm Womble Carlyle.

Mitchell started teaching the girls to cook early.

“I cook a lot and they were always crawling around my feet. So they had to learn something. They were separating eggs since they were 2.

“They’re quite accomplished in the kitchen. Of course, after they’ve cooked for three or four days, my kitchen looks like it should be exterminated. There’s buttercream icing on the ceiling.”

Yeah, right: Like a proud grandmother would complain much about that.

“If I give them good memories and I’m a good grandmother, that’s fine.”

Kathleen Purvis: 704-358-5236, @kathleenpurvis

Autumn Apple Cake

From Mary Fuentes, 16, of Charlotte.

2 cups sugar

1 1/3 cups vegetable oil

2 eggs, well beaten

1 tablespoon vanilla

3 cups all-purpose flour, sifted

3 tablespoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 cups raw apples, peeled and chopped

3/4 cup pecans


1/2 cup (1 stick) butter

8 ounces cream cheese

4 to 5 cups powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix sugar and vegetable oil. Beat in the eggs, vanilla and cinnamon. Add flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Mix well. The batter will be stiff. Fold in apples.

Pour into 3 greased and floured 8-inch pans. Bake for 30 minutes and test for doneness. (It may take an additional 5 minutes depending on the juiciness of the apples.)

Beat together the butter, cream cheese and powdered sugar with a mixer. Spread the icing evenly between the layers and sprinkle chopped pecans on the icing between layers but not on top. Do not ice sides of cake.

Optional: Thinly slice an unpeeled apple and sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon. Place on parchment paper and bake at 325 degrees until lightly browned. Cool and place on top of cake in a circle pattern. Add a few nuts to the center.

Yield: About 8 servings.

Fall Apple Salad

From Maggie Fuentes, 11, of Charlotte.

4 cups diced apples, cored but unpeeled

2 cans whole-berry cranberry sauce

1 envelope unflavored gelatin

1 cup dried cranberries

1 1/2 cup diced celery

1 (16-ounce) can crushed pineapple, drained (reserve juice)

1 1/2 cups pecans, chopped

Combine apples, celery, pecans and pineapple in a large bowl. Heat the pineapple juice in the microwave or on the stove with the cranberries, allowing to cranberries to plump. Add gelatin and stir to dissolve thoroughly. Mix in both cans of cranberry sauce and refrigerate until mixture is cool.

Add cranberry sauce mixture to apple mixture and combine. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Salad goes well with poultry or pork.