Visions of ribbons

Norita Solt is in a hurry. If she had her druthers, she’d paste her wheels to the passing lane and dash back to her Bettendorf, Iowa, kitchen in less time than it takes Dr. Laura to dispense with a show’s worth of scallywag husbands and anxious wives.

Do not try this at home: The author’s one of a kind Malt-o- Meal recipe. photo by Hanna Rachel Raskin

But today Solt is prudently sticking to the speed limit, allowing the hog carriers and pick-up trucks on Interstate 80 East to scoot around her. Even though she could probably drive this 170-mile stretch while doing yo-yo tricks with one eye closed, she’s slowed down to take my call: Recklessness doesn’t become an Iowa State Fair blue-ribbon winner.

Make that blue-ribbon monster. Each year, Solt enters upwards of 70 recipes in cooking contests at the fair, known on the competitive circuit as “The Big One.” So many amateur cooks haul their Cheesy Smoked Mesquite Bites and Strawberry Applesauce Crepes to the Iowa State Fair that the contests have outgrown the fair’s 10-day format, with judging starting five days before midway gates open.

Yet Solt has managed to distinguish herself, winning dozens of blue ribbons and almost enough cash to cover her daily treks to and from the Des Moines fairgrounds.

“The fair is a tremendous amount of work,” she says with far more cheer than most 52-year-olds could muster after cooking until 2 a.m. and then waking up three hours later to get back in a car that doubles as a pantry. “People think you just take bread over there like grandma did. That is absolutely not the case. You need to come up with something new and special.”

I’ve tracked down Solt because I’m hoping to do exactly that. Although I usually divide my fair visits between the pig races and the Globe of Death (or whatever it is the motorcycle stunt riders are currently calling their show), I’ve decided to make the Mountain State Fair even more exciting this year (no offense, little piggies) by entering the “Make It With Malt-O-Meal” recipe contest.

The event is one of nine sponsored recipe contests at the fair this year, and the only one in which judges weigh creativity as heavily as taste. I’m also heartened to learn it’s the only contest in which appearance doesn’t count. Still, contest veteran Sally Sibthorpe warns me, that doesn’t mean I can just drizzle chocolate over a mess of Golden Puffs and wait to claim my $100 prize.

“Do a little research,” Sibthorpe counsels me from her Michigan home. “Some places want homey, some places want trendy. Tailor it to what you think they’re looking for.”

I check the recipes already posted on the company’s Web site, but find the only thing those celebrated dishes have in common is the one ingredient that’s off-limits for this contest: Malt-O-Meal’s signature hot-wheat cereal, created by Minnesota inventor John Campbell in 1919, back when the mill-rich state was swimming in grains from all over the upper Midwest. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that the company entered the cold-cereal market, churning out low-cost versions of popular breakfast cereals. The contest rules clearly stipulate one of those cereals must be used in the entrant’s appetizer, entrée or dessert.

I choose Apple Zings, because an apple sounds more like food than a Spooner or a Scooter, and because they’re listed first on the alphabetical list.

But it turns out that Apple Zings aren’t indigenous to Asheville. None of the groceries here carry the sugary green-and-red rings, and the only mail-order source I can find sells the stuff by the gross. I finally make a desperate call to Malt-O-Meal’s headquarters, feigning Apple Zing fandom. I press the publicist to tell me which groceries stock the elusive cereal so I can contact them directly. She parries by suggesting I beg my local grocers to add Zings to their regular inventories, something I’m guessing won’t happen before the contest entry deadline the following week.

And so I take the cheap route to Apple Zing ownership: I pull rank. Before I can even tell the publicist where I’m a food editor, she’s promised to have two bags on my doorstep by Friday. Now I just need to figure out what to do with them.

I’ve never eaten an Apple Zing, but Sibthorpe assures me that shouldn’t impede my recipe planning.

“I came across a contest for Tofurky,” recalls Sibthorpe, who has had near-winning   runs at the Pillsbury Bake-Off and National Chicken Cook-Off—the Grammies and MTV Music Awards of competitive cooking—when not fussing with imitation-meat products.

“I’d never heard of it, I’d never seen it,” she says. “But the package said wrap it in foil and bake for two hours, so I added dried cherries and onion relish and baked it for two hours. I won a trip to Alaska.”

Sibthorpe, who won her first contest in 1980 with a blueberry pie (“I do really pretty pie crusts,” she says), almost always has dried cherries on hand. “If you can throw in one semi-trendy ingredient, that helps,” she confides, noting that pomegranates are still get-win-quick fruits. As a Michigander, Sibthorpe favors dried cherries, and has developed a Malt-O-Meal recipe featuring them.

“I decided to jazz up krispies with coconut and dried cherries,” says Sibthorpe. “I just wanted something tried and true.”

The dessert category is the obvious one, but I’m determined to make an entrée—with or without pomegranates. I don’t own many cookbooks, which both Solt and Sibthorpe have suggested I use as inspiration, but I’ve read many menus. And I know that apples show up on menus in only three guises: juice, pie and pork accompaniment.

I decide my dish must pair apples and pork. Might I coat chops with a thin batter of brightly colored zings? Could I concoct a pork loaf, using crushed Zings instead of breadcrumbs?

I finally settle on stuffing apples with a sausage-and-Zing mix and then baking them. I’m very precise about the preparation, purchasing every apple variety I can find and sampling three different sausages. But the actual cooking is tilted a little too far in favor of convenience (which covers 30 percent of the total score). I brown the sausage, crumble some cereal into it, and then stuff the mixture into a walnut-sized hole I’ve scooped into the crown of each rinsed apple. After 15 minutes of microwaving, I’m left with a sweetly soggy, leaden mess of sugary and savory.

After five minutes of eating, I’m clutching my stomach in pain.

I know the dish probably isn’t the worst the judges will encounter at the fair: Sibthorpe, who has gamely agreed to judge a number of contests, remembers grading a frosted cake flecked with dog hair (unintentionally, one assumes) and lifting the lid off a soup tureen to release a fog of flies. But since I’ve now developed a taste for Zings—their flavor is better balanced than Apple Jacks’ cloying sweetness, with a nice snap of cinnamon—I’d really like to at least win the $25 worth of Malt-O-Meal cereal promised to the third-place finisher.

I post my problem on an online message board for cooks, most of whom apparently can’t imagine my recipe on the back of a cereal box. “This is going to be pretty inedible,” reads one grave response. But there are a few good ideas scattered among the skepticism, and I head off on one more sausage-and-apple shopping trip.

The revised recipe calls for a tarter, stronger apple (Cameos have hit the shelves since my first experimental session) and onions, celery and poultry seasoning to transform the sausage mix into a legitimate stuffing, a la Thanksgiving. This time, I hollow out the apple until the walls are just about one-quarter-inch thick and douse the stuffing with chicken broth, hoping the added liquid will give the required Zings something to do besides leech the flavor from the pork. And I bake the apples in an oven, even basting them with apple cider and cider vinegar.

The results are surprisingly good. It’s been hours since I polished off three of the baked stuffed apples and I feel fine.

The Malt-O-Meal competition is scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 9, at 3 p.m. (Look for a recap in an upcoming food feature.)

“Have fun,” Solt tells me. “But remember, once you win, you’re hooked.”

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