County Fair Entries || Hitchhiking to Heaven

Going to the Fair

I felt subdued about entering my preserves in this year’s county fair. I’ll confess, my confidence was low. It may be because I did well last year — my first year — and I made a big deal about it. What if I went and bombed after I’d gone on about being a prizewinner? I felt shy about the whole thing, and I think that’s why I started out taking pictures in black and white.

I got my labels finished just in time, and I wasn’t entirely sharp about it. When I got my jars back, I found that the label on top of one of them indicated I had canned it in the year 2020. (At least I had correctly dated the label on the bottom — which is the one that counts.)

Still, I did my best to follow all the instructions and I delivered my fourteen entries (two identical jars of each, for a total of twenty-eight jars) in the middle of June. Here’s another exhibitor turning over her jars to be judged . . .

After the judging, but well before we learned the results, I picked up the set of jars that had been opened for tasting. The fair volunteers had sorted the pick-up boxes alphabetically, and I got a box all to myself. (There were people who entered more jars than I did this year. One winning duo entered twenty-two different recipes, for a total of forty-four jars. Wow.)

When I got home, I opened a few of the tasting jars in the box. My confidence did not soar.

The first jar I opened was my favorite red raspberry jam, and I saw that the judges had not even sampled it. I also found a hair on top of the jam in the jar. Can you imagine? Only later did it occur to me that it wasn’t my hair at all; it was probably the judge’s hair. I knew that jar had suffered a partial seal failure. The lid was secured fast, but the button had popped up. Even though the jam was just fine, I wasn’t going to get something like that past a judge at the fair, and I’m sure that’s why it wasn’t tasted. (We ate it up as soon as it returned home. I love that jam!)

Second, I opened a jar of peach jam from a batch that I had spiked with bourbon. Somehow, over the course of the months since I canned it, the jam had lost its set. It also tasted like a distillery. It turned out to be my lowest placing entry and, in the end, the judge was kind enough to put a note on the back of the tag: “Good flavor, too thin.” I guess she likes her liquor! (I’m sorry, Judge, if you ever read this. I’m joking, and I am sure you are not a boozer!)

The third jar I opened was my daikon-carrot pickles. I’d forgotten how daikon smells when pickled — funky, like cooked cabbage. I have unofficially renamed them “stinky pickles.”

After that, I stopped opening the tasting jars and started holding my breath. I knew there were some good things in that box. There just had to be.

Finally, the big day arrived. Our fair opens on Fourth of July weekend, and that’s when we can visit the exhibit hall to search for our results. That’s also when I perked up and switched to color photos.

This year, many of you expressed more faith and confidence in my preserves than I myself had, and I want to thank you for that. I discovered that I had won 3 Best of Show ribbons, 2 special awards from Ball, 7 first-place, 3 second-place (including the stinky pickles!), 2 third-place, a fourth-place, and an honorable mention for the skinny drunken peaches. This was far and away more than I had expected.

The most decorated jar was Meyer Lemon-Pink Grapefruit Marmalade, shown here with her Best of Show, Special Award, and First-Place Ribbons.

Here is the list of preserves entered and a tally of how they did. I’ve provided links to recipes when available.


Meyer Lemon-Pink Grapefruit Marmalade: Best of Show for Marmalades (plus a special award and a first-place ribbon for Mixed Fruit Marmalades)

Margarita Marmalade: First Place, Lime Marmalades

Quince-Orange-Cardamom Marmalade: First Place, Spiced Marmalades


Lingonberry-Banana Jam: Best of Show for Jams (plus a first-place ribbon in the “Other Jams” class)

Red Raspberry Jam: Fourth Place, Raspberry Jams

Butterscotch Peach Jam: Honorable Mention, Peach Jams


Spiced Quince Conserve: Best of Show for Conserves (plus a first-place ribbon in the “Other Conserves” class)

Fig with Candied Ginger and Lemon: Second Place, Mixed Fruit Conserves (this is really a jam that I shoehorned into a conserve class)

Other Sweet Preserves

Cherry Meyer Lemon Preserves: First Place, Other Preserves

Apple Butter: Second Place, Apple Butters

Pomegranate Champagne Jelly: Third Place, Other Jellies

Pickles & Chutneys

Pickled Cherries: First Place, Other Pickled Fruit (plus a special award from Ball for pickles) — these were based on an awesome recipe from Leena Eats.

Spicy Daikon Carrot Pickles: Second Place, Other Pickled Vegetables

Spicy Quince and Apple Chutney: Third Place, Apple Mix Chutneys

Shameless Vanity Shot


There’s a lot more I’d like to say about my experience at the fair this year, but this post is getting too darned long. I have just a few tips to add to last year’s list, like if you’ve got long hair, for goodness’ sake pull it back when you’re jamming. (What if that wasn’t the judge’s hair?) And it’s a good idea to keep a third jar of jam in reserve that you can open and taste before you send your jars off to the fair. (I’d have caught the distillery jam that way.) And you can minimize the risk of seal failure by being sure to use jars and lids from the same manufacturer. (My failure was a Ball lid on an older Kerr jar. They aren’t always identical.) But mostly I guess I’d say, jeez, relax, it’s just jam! (We teach what we need to learn.)

The other thing I’d like to do at some point is write a little bit about how I choose and/or develop recipes for the fair. Occasionally I use previously published recipes exactly as they were written — a common practice for fair participants — but mostly, as with each of the marmalades, I enter my own creations. The recipes I choose affect whether and how I can publish or share them on the blog. If you’re curious about that subject, Marisa at Food in Jars just wrote a helpful post on how to make a recipe yours and over at Punk Domestics, you can find a great article on recipe attribution.

Now, I’ll just grab your hand and drag you down the midway, so we can get a Sno-Kone.

And take a ride in a giant spinning bear.

And learn the parts of a goat.

And wish together that we could free the unhappy, fuzzy bunnies from their cages. (I’m glad our fair is short so the animals don’t have to stay too long.)

I’d also like to show you this: I wasn’t the only one in my family to do well at the fair this year. My mom entered for the first time and she won four ribbons for her plants, including Best of Show for a beautiful red begonia. This is her first-place winning jade plant.

Yay, mom!

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  • Reply Lindsay Murray July 19, 2011 at 6:36 pm

    I really, truly appreciate your honesty, especially since I hold you up as a canning guru. It’s fantastic to know how even with the best of intentions, these little glitches happen. I made over 50 different types of preserves last year and there were a few, that after about 4-5 months of cellaring, I was so disappointed with and I was crushed to know they had already been sold at the Farmer’s Market (they tasted great when I made them, honest!).

    I’m excited for the next installment of your e-cookbook and I appreciate your insights.

  • Reply Betsy July 19, 2011 at 8:36 pm

    I had the First Place Quince-Orange-Cardamom Marmalade for lunch today. Mmmm yum.

  • Reply SB Canning July 19, 2011 at 8:54 pm

    You are a superstar and love the write up no matter how long. I still love the story about the peaches and pickles. Everyone’s taste buds are different!

  • Reply Wendy July 19, 2011 at 9:54 pm

    Super duper, Shae! Congratulations!

  • Reply meg July 19, 2011 at 11:54 pm

    Oh wow Shae! So wonderful! Beautiful photos and I know your marmalades and jellies are amazing! xo

  • Reply kaela July 20, 2011 at 11:45 am

    Congratulations, Shae! That is really an impressive haul of awards: not that we had any doubt. :)

    I’m impressed that you are willing to put yourself out there for judging: I’m really bad at that sort of thing. I tend to be my own worst critic, but let some random fair judge criticize one of my babies, and I’d jump all over them. I think the world is safer without me entering the fair. :)

    I, too, am constantly amazed by how preserves age on the shelf: sometimes they can be remarkably consistent over time, and other times they are totally different at 1 month, 5 months, 1 year. It’s fascinating, but yet, sometimes annoying. I’m finally learning that my salsas & chutneys will not taste *anything* like they do going into the jars, so I need to adjust accordingly.

    Again, congratulations!

    • Reply Shae July 20, 2011 at 5:11 pm

      Kaela, thanks. And I hear you on the judging thing. To me, entering the fair is a little like taking a standardized test. It’s only one limited way of measuring skill; there are so many other means of appreciating ability and creativity. I was a standardized test geek in school. Hold up the hoop and I’ll jump — until I get bothered and break the hoop over your head. :-)

      In fairness to the fair judges, they don’t give much written feedback, but what I got felt right. My peaches were too thin and so was my apple butter. True on both counts. It was weird how that peach jam gave up its set, though. It was one of my only pectin-added jams, and I used a brand I haven’t before. I wonder whether that had anything to do with it.

  • Reply kate July 20, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    Woowee, congrats! Everything looks beautiful. And I’m impressed that your judges taste- we don’t taste at our county fair, as we’ve seen some sketchy stuff. We judge on apperance alone against a standard rubric provided by the National Center for Home Food Preservation.

    • Reply Shae July 20, 2011 at 2:51 pm

      Thanks, Kate! I love hearing comments about how judging works at different fairs. If I’m correct, our judges only taste the high-acid stuff, not the veggies. And, as I learned from my raspberry jam, if anything looks even slightly off, they will not dip in. I suspect the reason I got a fourth-place ribbon for that jam instead of flat-out disqualification is because it was given some points solely for appearance.

  • Reply Sara July 20, 2011 at 1:25 pm

    Congratulations! Fun post too–love the dramatic tension you build.

  • Reply lani July 20, 2011 at 9:02 pm

    I’m so proud of you. I am taking my jars to fair (Ventura County) this Friday ……And I am adding some of my photo’s in the photo dept…..I got in a terrible car accident June 25th ands= was really quite a relief that I did so much canning prior to that….Im unable to do any canning for a few months my left arm is out of commission…but I’m going to figure something out cause i miss my canning…waaa.congrats again and good job my friend…..Hey you are so lucky to be able to use the tiny jars all ours have to be half pint…..

  • Reply Julia July 21, 2011 at 10:28 am

    What a fabulous post, Shae! As usual, wonderful pictures and such a story. I will always love that adult preserved food sign. I know for sure how good all of your creations are, and what a great lot of thoughtful work you put in to them. I’ll bet my reason for not entering in a fair is all of that work, and giving away so many beautiful jams. You have to give away to get anything back, and I am so happy for you that you got all you deserved and more in return of your hard work and creativity. Congratulations!

    • Reply Shae November 16, 2011 at 3:50 pm

      Jules, I am so late responding to this note, but now that you (Half-Pint Preserving Company) have been nominated for a Good Food Award, I just have to say I’m glad you took the leap of sharing your amazing work. Also, about the giving away of jars — with our fair, we get back everything that we submit. All the tasting jars come back the day after they are opened, so we can eat them up or share them as we like. And the display jars come back to us a few weeks later, clean and unopened. (Some of the winners have fancy stickers on them, which makes them even more fun to share later.) So it’s no loss — all gain!

  • Reply Jyll July 21, 2011 at 11:27 am

    Fabulous work, Shae! You remain my canning inspiration! You are so generous with your knowledge and your creations…Congratulations to you AND your Mom!

  • Reply Rosemary Rideout July 21, 2011 at 6:49 pm

    Congratulations, Shae. So, what is a conserve? I have never figured that one out. I’ll never, ever enter a county fair competition, but it’s fun to read your news. In my books, you are always number one.

    • Reply Shae November 16, 2011 at 3:53 pm

      Rosemary, there are different ways to look at conserves. Some definitions hold that it’s a preserve of stewed fruits. The more flexible approach is to look at a conserve as a preserve of mixed fruits, sometimes containing dried fruit and/or nuts. Never say never! :-)

  • Reply Sarah B. Hood July 21, 2011 at 9:30 pm

    Congratulations on your wonderful showing! And thanks for posting about the experience too. Your similar post of last year saved me from missing out bigtime at our Royal Winter Fair, because I didn’t know fairs ask for TWO jars and had only saved one of some of my better efforts.

    Will you be sending any raspberry jam to the World Jampionships?

  • Reply Denise | Chez Danisse July 23, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    This judging is interesting. I know I would gladly taste any of your creations. Appearance can be an important factor in our experience of food, but I couldn’t imagine not having taste as part of the equation.

  • Reply Angela Watts July 25, 2011 at 12:11 am

    First of all congrats! I am inspired and adore looking at all the lovely rosettes you’ve won this year.

    I’ve been looking into what fairs I can enter up here and sadly the biggest one is so far away and would require three trips (drop off, regular visit to exhibit and pickup) it would be cost prohibitive even if I won top prize for every entry…hoping to hear back from the closer fairs that haven’t posted their info online yet. I figure if I put in a handful I can make a decent decision as to whether I am doing ok. And it gives me a nice spread. I figure on a jam, a marmalade or jelly and a pickle.

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  • Reply Shae November 16, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    Ack! We got swept up in preparing for our Alaska trip and I never came back here to say thank you for all of this amazing support. I just tried to answer a few questions that I missed, above, but mostly I wanted to offer a belated thanks. Y’all are the best!

  • Reply Suzanne December 29, 2011 at 4:57 pm

    OMG, I would love to get a cutting from your mom’s jade plant. I just sent out an email to find out requirements for my local fair, the Hopkinton Fair in NH, for jam entries. I use interesting flavor profiles but nothing that would be out of place. I will update as to my results – your entries are inspiring.

    • Reply Shae March 5, 2012 at 11:54 am

      Suzanne, please do come back here and let us know how it goes! I honestly love to hear those reports.

  • Reply Wendelah March 4, 2012 at 10:27 pm

    I’m disappointed that the recipe for the award-winning Meyer Lemon-Pink Grapefruit marmalade never made it onto your blog.

  • Reply Shae March 5, 2012 at 11:59 am

    Ah yes, and so am I. There is a story about that, which is that it’s sometimes challenging to translate what you do late at night when you’re just playing around in the kitchen to a recipe that’s reliable and reasonably easy to follow. I have made the Meyer-grapefruit marmalade about ten times since the best-of-show batch, and it’s just about at the point where I could post it. It’s in my draft folder, in fact. So never say never — a lot of work can go into creating and writing a single recipe.

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