“For years I’ve said I need to make a shepherd’s pie,” Connie Pegg says as she reveals her entry for the North Carolina Pork Council’s contest Monday night at the Mountain State Fair. With delicate swirls of both sweet and white mashed potatoes atop the dish, it’s a colorful temptation for the eye as well as the imagination, and it smells heavenly.
Crockpot in hand, Sharon Gates delivers her entry, Nana’s Italian wedding soup, a rich, succulent broth with pork meatballs and tiny pasta, hoping to take the $200 first prize. “I brainstormed on what could be made with ground pork,” Gates says. This is Gates’ 15th consecutive year entering cooking contests at the fair.
The cooking contests have been a part of the fair since its inception 21 years ago according to public information officer Paul Jones. “The very first year there was only one contest,” Jones says. “It was a cake contest sponsored by the North Carolina Egg Association.” This year there are 10 sponsored cooking contests, one for each day of the fair.
Sponsored contests require entrants to use a specified amount of the featured ingredient, such as four ounces of ground pork per serving for the pork competition, but otherwise allow for a wide spectrum of originality — one of the key components for winning. Taste, appearance and ease of preparation are also considerations.
Sue Estridge, superintendent of the North Carolina Mountain State Fair cooking contests, selected 55 volunteers to judge the contests this year. Although Estridge is not recruiting culinary professionals, she does have strict requirements. “I’m looking for everyday people who like to eat,” Estridge says.
Judges may select which categories they prefer, but assignments are made on a first-come, first-served basis. Judge Robin Allred admits, “I would never choose to judge blueberries because I’d be eating all those desserts, but with pork you can’t go wrong.”
During Monday’s competition, fellow judges Marcelle Martin and Scherlon Young join Allred. Renay Knapp serves as hostess, taking entries back one at a time for judging. She reminds the judges to pace themselves since there are 14 entries to sample. A plate of cheese, crackers and carrots is ready to cleanse palates between dishes.
The contestants chat with each other as they await the judge’s decisions. Another returning contestant, Susie Zuerner, has entered glazed pork cheeseburgers. This is her 13th year entering the cooking competitions.
Zuerner is already a winner this year, placing second with her fall harvest chili in the N.C. Cattleman’s Association contest. Zuerner took locally grown to another level by using red, green and yellow peppers from her garden and meat from a steer she raised herself. “His name was Larry,” Zuerner says. “He was grass-fed with no antibiotics or hormones. He had a good life.”
Each sponsor specifies rules and requirements as well as prizes offered. For example, this year’s N.C. Egg Association contest specifies: “This contest is open to all ages and for amateurs only. Professional bakers may not enter.” They also require the recipes use eggs and be prepared in a slow-cooker.
Zuerner offers a tip for new entrants: “You don’t have to bring the full recipe in for judging, it’s expensive and heavy.” Especially when you’re entering multiple contests as Zuerner does.
Although Pegg has been entering cooking contests at the fair for 16 years, 2014 is her first time entering the N.C. Aquaculture Association’s trout competition. She won first place and $200 with her Totally Terrific Trout Chowder, a white chowder featuring four ounces of North Carolina trout per serving, potatoes and creamed corn.
As the judges announce decisions in the pork competition, Pegg adds another first prize to her winnings with her shepherd’s pie.
Although Gates’ soup did not place in the pork competition, she already snagged honorable mention in the N.C. Strawberry Association contest with her strawberry-lemonade pie. Her daughter is now a contender as well. Emma Gates, 12, took first place and $100 in the strawberry competition with her strawberry-basil frozen yogurt.
This year’s winning recipes, like Pegg’s Sensational Shepherd Pie, will be posted on the Mountain State Fair website, but if you wish you had recipes from past years, you’re in luck. A 525-page compilation of winning recipes through 2008 has been published in a spiral-bound book available for $25 at the WNC Agricultural Center.
Now in her fourth year judging cooking contests at the Mountain State Fair, Allred admits she’s hooked. “I could do this every day,” she says.