Past Times

Life as a North Carolina State Fair judge could be sweet

Miss Rose Ellwood Bryan, right, is assisted by Mrs. Charles Parker in judging jelly at the 1952 state fair.
Miss Rose Ellwood Bryan, right, is assisted by Mrs. Charles Parker in judging jelly at the 1952 state fair. N&O file photo

Alongside the midway rides and the deep-fried offerings, the State Fair’s competitions still carry an air of excitement. In 1952, writer Dotty Cameron gave readers an idea of what life was like for a state fair judge.

It was a hard day for the judges.

They eyed color combinations, tasted preserves and pickles, criticized the line of flower arrangements. Then they awarded the blue, red and white ribbons – a coveted take-home souvenir of North Carolina’s 85th State Fair.

The casual spectator would have given a ribbon to any number of the carefully decorated cakes or the colorful jars of jellies. But the critical eye of the judges looked beyond the creamy icing to the texture and moisture of the layers and the color of jelly.

Jars of jelly and preserves were opened, the consistency tested with a knife, the containers rated according to the size of the family. Then came the final test – the taste – by an expert who had just sampled pickles or sauerkraut so that by contrast the tasting sense would be more accurate.…

Competition was indeed keen. The N&O Oct. 15, 1952

By 1965, times were starting to change, but culinary competitions were still a big part of the fair, as writer Phyllis Austin explained.

Knives in hand and with a mischievous sounding “Shall we?” Mrs. Bern Bullard, Mrs. George Paschal, Mrs. O. F. McCrary, and Mrs. David Cozart Jr. dissected and consumed a part of 90 cakes, an assortment of cookies, breads and candies yesterday at the N.C. State Fair.

Judges of the pastry entries, the Raleigh women attacked their job with enthusiasm, “yumms” and “hummms” during the first hour of the contest. But as the taste buds grew a little duller, faces seemed to turn slightly green at the thought of just one more category to judge.

Using coffee and water in between tastes to set tongues anew, they pinched icings, pulled at the breads, broke cookies in half, plunged the knives into water and dug in again and again.

“I ate just half a grapefruit to prepare myself for the job today,” said Mrs. McCrary.

“I fortified myself with bacon and eggs,” added Mrs. Cozart, “but now I wish I hadn’t.”

The judges, all prize winners in their own kitchens, tested the entries on four qualities – appearance, texture, moistness and flavor. Often entries were eliminated at first sight – another bite saved, as well as an extra pound.

Mrs. Paschal has been judging in the pastry division for 17 years. A graduate in home economics from Iowa State University, she said, “We stayed in the early days of the fair until sundown. We used to have a hundred poundcakes alone to judge.”

The quantity of entries has diminished, but the quality has remained about the same. This reflects goings on in the kitchen, according to the judges.

“People are using mixes now,” noted Mrs. Paschal. “They aren’t interested in baking for competition, where things are made from scratch. People are also more diet conscious and tend to steer away from eating so many sweets.”

One of the most interesting aspects of judging at the fair is getting to know the baker by her number.

“Several take on their own personalities as they enter in all categories. We often compare their ability in cakes, candy and bread, but for our personal use, not in judging their entries,” continued Mrs. Paschal.

Throughout the day the women were heard saying “Well, here’s our friend, 113 again.”

And if the previous entry was tasty, the women didn’t lose any time in sampling the goodie.

Men have previously entered the contest, and have come up with several blue ribbons. “I struck up a conversation with one,” said Mrs. Paschal, “and we wound up exchanging recipes.”

The only sad note about the pastry story is its inevitable death. The judges agreed that because of changing tastes and the weight consciousness, entries will diminish so much in years to come the class will be eliminated.

Angel food, caramel, coconut, chocolate, pound, sponge, and chiffon cakes, divinity, fudge, mints, peanut brittle, and more were sampled during the course of the first day at the 98th State Fair. Following a morning of desserts, the judges were guests of the fair at a luncheon. The N&O Oct. 12, 1965

Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/past-times.

Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

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