Tales and Tips from the County Fair

I came home from the 2010 Marin County Fair with a fistful of ribbons for my preserves. Nine in all, for my seven jars. Did this surprise me? You bet it did. I’d never entered a fair before, so I didn’t know what to expect. But I’m a perfectionist and obsessive about details, so I’m guessing those things worked in my favor. What I want to do here is tell you a little bit about my experience and give you a few tips for entering your local fair, in case you want to give it a go next year.

At first, I was suspicious of all those ribbons. I figured our little fair didn’t draw much competition. I know there aren’t nearly as many people preserving food here in Marin as there are, say, in more rural Sonoma County, just to the north of us. And Marin uses an American system of judging for most preserves, which means entries are compared against each other. (Some fairs use the Danish system, in which entries are judged only against a scorecard, rather than being judged against other entries. Under the Danish system, there could be multiple blue ribbon winners for just one type of jam, if more than one achieves a perfect score.)

Also, I wondered about our judges. Who were they? A few ladies from down the street, I guessed. But it turns out they’re real pros. (Not that ladies from down the street couldn’t be that, too.) They’ll judge almost fifty different fairs this year.

I learned that our judges, too, use a scorecard (pictured below) and that if they don’t find an entry that deserves a blue ribbon in a particular class, they simply won’t award one. I started to feel better about my prizes — and the little bit of money I won to go with them.

As one example of how judging works at our fair, no one took home a blue ribbon in the “Other Jelly” category. Other Jelly, like Other Jam, is a tough gig. It encompasses all the jellies that aren’t one pure flavor (apple, plum, grape, and so on). Anything spiced, herbed, or peppered will end up with the Other Jellies. So my Apple Earl Grey Almond Jelly was judged against Homegrown Rose, Wild Gooseberry, Habañero, and Rosemary Mint, to name a few. The judges found a flaw in every jar, so top honors went to the Homegrown Rose, which won a second place ribbon.

Here’s how the ribbons sorted out, with links to the recipes published on this blog.

  • Meyer Lemon Marmalade: Best of Show for Marmalade, First Place Lemon Marmalade
  • Red Wine and Clementine Stewed Apricots & Prunes: Best of Show for Conserves, First Place Conserve
  • Apricot Jam: First Place Apricot Jam
  • Strawberry Balsamic Black Pepper Jam: Second Place “Other Jams” (Thanks Sarah & Alec!)

Here are my babies, home from their exciting trip to the fair . . .

Now, competition may not be your thing. I’ve thought a lot about why I enjoy it, but that’s another post entirely. If you’ve never entered a fair before and are thinking you might like to go for it, I have a few tips that really helped me out as a first time exhibitor.

The obvious: It’s all about flavor and texture. As you can see from the scorecard above, those things are 70% of the game at the Marin County Fair and most others. So far, I’ve learned a couple of interesting things about flavor and texture. One, as mentioned above, is that county-fair jam recipes tend toward the sweet. Because most of my jams are reduced sugar, I won’t enter them in the fair — unless they make a special division for that someday. (Wouldn’t that be a good idea?) The other is that it’s traditional to add pectin to county fair recipes. On that score, I’m just going to fly by the seat of my pants, because none of my entries contained added pectin and I did okay.

Whatever recipes you choose, you don’t get to play the game at all if the judges don’t open your jars. My tips are about how to get your stuff to the fair in the first place, and how to please the judges before they even put spoon to mouth.

Tip #1: Learn the Rules

Many preserves are disqualified because the jammer didn’t RTFM. The manual, you know? Every fair has one. For instance, the person in front of me in the drop-off line was sent home because she brought only one jar of apple butter, and the fair requires two identical jars of everything entered.

It’s easy to learn what the fair wants from you. As soon as you can, get the handbook from this year’s fair and peruse it. (Many, including Marin’s, are available online. If you can’t get yours online, call your county or state. There’s almost always a fair office where you can get on a mailing list.) Then, be sure to find out when next year’s handbook will be published and get that when the time comes. Requirements do change from year to year.

Pay particular attention to deadlines. Our fair has one deadline for entry forms, another for dropping off jars to be judged, and yet another for picking them up. It sounds like a lot, but if you know your dates well in advance and mark your calendar, it’s no sweat.

Tip #2: Make a Canning Plan

This isn’t as onerous as it might sound. You don’t have to decide right now everything you want to can for next year’s fair — though it may be fun to dream about it. All I’m saying is that you probably don’t want to wait until next May to start canning for a summer fair.

Typically, all preserves entered in a fair must be canned within a year of that fair’s opening day. For some ingredients, that means you’ll be canning next year’s entries now. For example, the apricot jam I make this month will go to the fair next year.

Here’s my easy system for putting away potential entries all year long: For everything I preserve, if I think there’s even a slight chance it’ll be county-fair appropriate, I’ll can two jars “like I mean it.” I’ll use the best scoops of my mixture (not the stuff left at the bottom of the pan with less fruit in it), identical jars, precise head space, clear labels, the works. Then I’ll put those jars into a special cabinet away from heat, light, and other disturbances. Come next spring, I’ll evaluate what I have and decide what to enter.

Of course no system should be rigid. This year, I knew I wanted to make my Apricot and Prune Conserve for the fair, but I wasn’t completely happy with the batch I’d canned in winter; it was too stiff. I wrote it down on my entry form anyway and canned another batch the week after I turned in my form. I’m glad I did, too.

Tip #3: Neatness Counts

Who isn’t favorably disposed toward a pretty jar? Judges surely will be.

Jars. Make sure your jars are the required size and that they’re flawless. If you’re required to submit two jars, be certain they’re identical. For example, if they’re two regular half-pint jars, they should be from the same manufacturer in the same style. You wouldn’t want one to be quilted and the other clear.

Head space. When canning, watch your head space. The head-space measurement should be accurate for the recipe you’ve chosen. I heard that some judges measure head space with a ruler. Are you going to get out your tape measure every time you fill a jar of jam? If you are, I’m scared of you. I wasn’t that careful, but I’ve learned where 1/4″ and 1/2″ are by getting to know the measurements of the threads at the top of the jar.

Storage. Store your jars with absurd care. Find a location that’s cool, dry, and safe. Don’t let your jars tip on their sides or be turned upside down, because you don’t want to muck up the head space. (It should be as clear as possible, without food particles stuck to the glass or lid.) As always, you should store your jars without screw bands, but when it comes time to choose your bands, inspect them carefully to be sure they’re not dented or rusty.

Polishing & Labeling. Before you take your jars to the fair, gently wash them and polish them with a clean cloth. Be sure they’re neatly labeled with all required information. (Marin wants precise information on the bottom of every jar; I secured mine with clear packing tape. On the jar lids, I used my regular labels, making sure they, too, were carefully applied. I got totally carried away, making sure to line up the text on my labels with the manufacturer’s name on the jar.)

Now that the fair is over, I’ll turn a jar upside down so I can show you the label:

Transport. Take care with how you transport all that hard work to the fair. It would be a drag to go through all of this and dump your jars because you had to suddenly brake along the way. I set aside a couple of the original cardboard boxes for the canning jars and took my entries to the fair in those. I didn’t put them in a jammy car seat or anything, but you know, it might not be a bad idea.

Finally, think about what else you might want to bring to the fair. It’s entertaining to read about the other contests in the handbook: photography, winemaking, birdhouses, floral arts, every imaginable kind of baking. Here’s a photo of this year’s Best of Show Backyard Compost.

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32 comments to Tales and Tips from the County Fair

  • Gloria

    Well done. You have won an impressive and well deserved accolade.

  • Julia

    Indeed, congratulations!! But also, a big thank you for all your hard work and research that you've so generously shared with everyone. That's some serious giving back!

  • Jane

    Fabulous. I tell everyone to enter. Learn what your area likes. In CA I found they don't mind you taking the rules to the max. Here not so much. Here they award 1, 2 and 3 that is it and you go against chefs and jam bussiness owners and so on. I know in Pea town CA it wasn't that way.

    You did GREAT! Very addicting isn't it. I'm in 3 fairs now and thinking of adding one more next year….out of state for the next one.

  • meg

    So exciting! I would be bouncing off the walls with happiness and pride! Great tips too. Maybe some day…

  • thecosmiccowgirl

    so impressive! and thanks so much for sharing your insight with all of us. the deadline for our local fair is july 31st and i'm still considering entering one or two if i can work up the nerve!

    congrats again!

  • Mary-Laure

    Congrats! My mum and I make preserves every summer and it's a special moment together.

  • RJ Flamingo

    What a great post, Shae! Thanks for sharing. We don't have a county fair – so un-FAIR!

  • Shae | Hitchhiking to Heaven

    Gloria: Thank you. Your gorgeous jellies inspire me to work harder on one of my own for next year.

    Juia: Hey, I hammered out quite a bit of my thinking about the fair in emails to you, so thank you back!

    Jane: You're my hero, entering 45 jars in 3 fairs this year. And I know you do well against serious competition. Here in Marin, professionals aren't allowed to enter.

    Meg: Thanks! Do think about it, why don't you? It's hella fun.

    Cowgirl: I hope you go for it. I learned so much from it — not just from trying my hand at my own entries, but from going to the fair and checking out what other local canners are working on. Lots of inspiration there.

    Mary-Laure: Thanks so much. It must be sweet to can with your mum. I've promised my mom I'll come at Thanksgiving and help her can her marvelous cranberry relish, which she usually puts in the freezer.

    Kate: I'd love to see or experience the Dutch system in action sometime. If the judges here see anything that looks weird with a jar, they won't taste it! They don't taste the pressure-canned, nonacid veggies either. I wouldn't. :-)

    Renee: Thanks! And there's always the state fair, right? :-)

  • Cynthe Brush

    Shae ~ Terrific post demystifying our county fair participation process. REALLY, everyone who has the least inclination should give it a try…

    The whole purpose of having these competitions is to preserve the "Art of Preserving." And it's such a GREAT excuse for culinary creativity.

    PS. I'm working on something plummy for next year. Tasted my first truly delish apricots at last week's farmers market though they weren't blemish-free. Just may have to try my hand with them. Also, want to give jelly a go.

  • Shae | Hitchhiking to Heaven

    Cynthe: How exciting to find a locally blogging, fellow Marin County Fair prizewinner. (Friends, check out her beautiful blog here: http://www.figswithbri.com.) You know I'm in total agreement about getting everyone to the fair!

    As to those apricots, I'd lay odds they're Blenheims. Am I right? I'm going to sound like a snob if I say I won't use any others, but it's true. They're ugly, but there's nothing like the taste of 'em.

    We'll have to talk jelly. I bet you could do a beautiful rose!

  • Denise | Chez Danisse

    I'm pretty sure you won't see me competing in the near future, but I enjoy watching you win ribbons.

  • Heather

    Just wandered over here while looking for jam ideas. Thanks for an informative post! I've always wondered how the judging worked at fairs.
    p.s. my s.i.l. lives in Fairfax, and I can't imagine there being a bunch of junk at the fair-
    Congratulations on your ribbons!

  • Jenna Z

    Awesome! I LOVE seeing blog posts about the fair! I've only ever entered one jelly, a kiwi pineapple jelly in the "other jellies" class. It won 1st but it was the only one entered! Sounds like you had a TON of competition! Congrats!

  • Shae | Hitchhiking to Heaven

    Denise: You never know, you may get inspired and craft a prizewinning peanut donut!

    Heather: Thank you! And it's true, in Fairfax we try to stay a cut above "bunch of junk." You made me laugh!

    Jenna: You go with your tropical fruit! They wouldn't have given you a 1st prize if it weren't spot on. I think the "other jelly" and "other jam" categories are the most entertaining. :-)

  • The Brenna

    your labeling technique is very helpful. I'm a newbie to the fair circuit and have been seeking labeling advice to no avail. Thank you!

  • Karen Klemens

    I enjoyed your post. I entered the LA County Fair for the first time this year, too. And like you, I won! Two first place blue, one third place white, and one best of show for my jams….I think I need to enter more competitions!

    What type is the green?

    Thanks for the advice!

  • Shae | Hitchhiking to Heaven

    Brenna: I'm glad it might help. Our fair's guidebook tells us what to put on the labels, and where to put the labels, but I made up the rest. They didn't seem to mind!

    Karen: Congratulations! Seems like we're hooked. The big green ribbons are Marin's Best of Show. What do LA's look like? More important, which of your jam's took the big prize? :-)

  • Patty in OK

    You've inspired me! Ever since reading your blog entry I've been making all sorts of jams & jellies – some of which I will enter in our fair next month. Your tips were just the sort I was looking for.

    I was intrigued by the lemon marmalade…never heard of it before. So today I drove 2 hours to Tulsa to buy some Meyer Lemons because I'm really interested in trying this. Are you willing to share your award-winning recipe?

  • Shae | Hitchhiking to Heaven

    Oh, Patty, I'm so sorry I wasn't here when you left your comment. I was away for three weeks in Alaska and am just now catching up. What did you do with those lemons you worked so hard to get?

    I am going to publish my basic Meyer Lemon Marmalade recipe soon. In the meantime, you can make it by following the recipe for Double Meyer Marmalade and leaving out the rum and vanilla bean.

    Good luck at the fair. I hope you'll leave a comment here or email me at the address over on the right to let me know how it goes.

  • Mrs Mac

    I have to tell you that after reading this post I decided to enter my marmalades and jams into the NC State Fair and guess what? I won 2 first place ribbons and 1 second place!

  • Shae @ H2H

    Mrs Mac: Do you know, this post is my favorite of everything on the blog because it gets comments like yours. I love to hear that people have taken the leap and entered a fair — especially with such outstanding results. Thank you so much for letting me know. Congratulations!

  • Anonymous

    I never was interested in fairs, bc I never wanted to waste two jars on a bunch of strangers, when I have friends and family that have already judged my canning to be excellent.
    Plus, I can on a larger scale. So far, I have about 1,400 quarts of various produce.

  • Shae @ H2H

    Anon: At our fair the jars don't go to waste at all. We pick up the tasting jars on the day they're opened, so we can bring them home to enjoy. After the fair, the display jars come back to us still sealed. I got such a kick of sharing with family or friends the actual jars that won a prize. And, at a market I attended, I raffled off my best in show Meyer Marmalade for a favorite local charity. I love sharing jam with folks I don't know, because afterward they aren't strangers anymore. :-)

    I admire your large-scale canning. 1,400 quarts! Astonishing.

  • [...] Shae sent me the next best thing: some of her own Meyer marm. And coming, as it did, from the Queen of Meyer marmalade, you just knew that this preserve was going to be special. So I wanted to honor Shae’s [...]

  • theresa

    I’m assistant supervisor of Home Arts at my county fair, and have watched the Food Preservation judge for a lot of years. Yes, she really does use a ruler to judge head space! So now, so do I. As for experience, she has been judging for over 40 years, and just to be able to listen to her as she explains to the clerk (and the rest of us standing around listening) what she is looking for is like having our own class (here is where I insert my plug–go volunteer for your local fair! You will learn so much! Plus it’s a lot of fun).
    My one big piece of advice, from my perspective, is to READ YOUR PREMIUM BOOK. Make sure you have labeled the jar the way they want it, make sure you have it entered in the right category, make sure you provide everything they ask for.
    And enter! and keep entering! You are the folks who keep the county fairs going.

    • Shae

      I would love to volunteer at the fair and hear the judges do their thing. Perhaps next year I’ll sit out the competition and ask to work the fair, instead. That’s funny about the head space! I had no doubt it was a true practice, but I don’t quite have the patience to do it myself. I did measure the jar threads, though, so I know generally where the markers are — as long as Jarden doesn’t move them!

  • Debbie

    Thanks for the great tips on Jelly for the fair. I love
    your simple brown labels where did you get them? They are natural and
    earth friendly looking…
    (I’m not on facebook) you’ll reply if you don’t mind sharing.
    thanks again,
    Pomegranates grown and Jelly made.

    • Shae

      Hi Debbie: Thanks for stopping by! I get my labels at worldlabel.com — they’re simple 2.5 inch rounds. I print them with a Microsoft World label template. You can find a link to the template in this post.

  • Congratulations on your winnings! I have been entering the fairs since I was 9. I started in 4-H. I now work for my local county fair and judge 4-H at my state fair and I love it! :)

  • Tom Remus

    Very interesting about you entering the Marin County Fair for the first time in 2010. I remember wandering around the kind of dispersed exhibit area last year (2010) with my family and them telling me and me thinking my stuff’s as good or better than a lot of what I’m looking at. So, with my daughter’s steady encouragement, I entered this year. And I subsequently also got a whole handfull of ribbons.

    I’m a much more diverse canner than you, I believe, so ended up covering a wider range. My products and their diversity somewhat reflect my youth as a farm boy in Mountain View long ago.

    My big winner was canned pears (First Place Winner for pears and Special Award winner for fruit. My other First Place winner was for Zinfandel grape juice. Not bad given that I’m an old guy who didn’t turn out very neat labels or do a lot to make sure his jars were clean. I also think I had advantage because I ended up entering categories that did not have wide responses, fruit and juice being prime examples. Regardless, in the end it was really a fun experience for me and my whole family.

    Sometimes a judge will write a comment on the back of the card describing the entry. I got 2 such comments back out of 7 entries. The comment for my pickled asparagus was ‘good flavor, bit tough’. Personally, I think the texture is just right, just a bit of crunch. I know it’s about perfect in a Bloody Mary and I have multiple witnesses to that. The comment on my strawberry jam was ‘should be from 1/8″ to 1/4″ from the top”. Ok, although I’m not sure how that makes it better.

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