Can It!

In 2009, I won a blue ribbon at the Iowa State Fair for my caramels. It was my mom’s recipe, and it took me several tries to get them to taste and be the same consistency as hers. But the State Fair was not my original goal.

I made a batch of caramels one weekend, and since a batch makes approximately 100 individual caramels (depending upon how you cut them), we had far too many caramels for ourselves. So, I brought about half of them to the Capitol. Legislators and lobbyists will eat anything. I put them in a community candy dish in the House Lobby Lounge. A few minutes later I was approached by Lana Shope. Lana is everything Fair. She asked if I made them. Oh, oh. I hope she’s not sick from them. After I let her know that I did indeed make them, she told me that she had tasted blue ribbon winners from the Iowa State Fair and that I should enter them in the next contest.

That summer, I made a batch and read the instructions for entering a sample. Suzette’s, a candy maker on Ingersoll Avenue (now closed), sponsored one of two contests. It’s judges met on a Tuesday. I noticed that my sample was set aside with the dozen or more others that were obviously rejected. We peeked at the comments. “Not arranged proportionally, too soft.” No one told me that each piece had to be cut symmetrically to the other three. And “soft” was the point.

The next contest was the following Friday, and was sponsored by Land O’ Lakes. First place offered the prize of a year’s supply of butter. So, I made another batch, cut the caramels using a ruler, placed the four pieces on a small paper plate, and changed the title of the recipe to “Mom’s Old-Fashioned Soft Caramels.” My marketing career was born that day. I won the blue ribbon and received twelve coupons worth one pound of butter each. I ran out before the year was over, but I’m not complaining.

This year, I decided to enter three contests. I have been making my own salsa and canning it for several years. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to just buy it at the grocery store? Yes, but the point about canning is that you can have the best on hand whenever you like.

Contest rules demand that all ingredients are fresh. We’ve always had a few tomatoes, but this year we grew a few more than other years. I’ve realized that purchasing peppers and onions at the store is more efficient than growing them. And I checked the expiration date on the tomato paste to know that it was fresh, as well. Salsa would be one of my entries.

Similar to salsa, I make my own pasta sauce, too. Spaghetti sauce is a class in one of the divisions within the Food Department at the Fair, so spaghetti sauce would be another entry.

Finally, I struggle to make good jelly. Too many times it doesn’t set up. However, this year I made a good batch of black raspberry jelly from the invasive plants in our backyard. It was good enough to be my third entry.

I didn’t expect the jelly to win anything. The spaghetti sauce was a possibility, but the salsa had to win the blue ribbon. I just knew it.

Stephanie, her daughter Kelly, and I attended the judgement day. First up was the salsa. I had twelve competitors, but I was confident mine would come out on top. We noticed the rejects were being lined up on the northside table near the judges, just like the caramels were fourteen years ago. Was mine on that table? It had to be, because the final three were sitting in front of the judge, and not one of the finalists was a tomato-based salsa. A peach salsa was the winner. We can’t remember what the other two were made from. It doesn’t matter. I learned a valuable lesson that day. Your best is only as good as the discriminatory tastes of the judge.

Next up was the spaghetti sauce. I was watching my vessel. All the jars looked the same, but I followed my entry from the southside table to the judge’s table. I pointed it out to Stephanie and Kelly. About the time the judge opened my entry I was distracted by a guy sitting next to me, wanting to know if I had entered the sauce contest. He had also entered the canned meat contest and was trying to tell me that there was a controversy in that class (I found out later that it was his entry that caused a controversy). I looked back to the judging. Stephanie told me that the judge made a sour face. Well, crap! “Let’s go,” I said. I didn’t need to see my pasta sauce placed on the northside table. We left. But not before we stopped to see the entries into the “Ugliest Cake” category.

I did not show up the following day to watch the jelly judging. I knew it wasn’t very good, and I didn’t need another day of rejection. Later, we went to the Fair with family. I wanted to walk the length of the concourse to see who won those three classes I had entered, and to see if their product looked as good as mine.

David yelled at me: “Marty, here’s your jelly!” I went down to the end of the row to see that my jelly had won a white ribbon. It dawned on me at that moment that I had to have won a ribbon. Blue is first; red is second place; and white is third. A day earlier I checked the competition. There were only three entries in the black raspberry jelly class. Hey! A ribbon at the Iowa State Fair is still a ribbon.

Everyone went to look at the ugly cakes and I searched for the spaghetti sauce result. To my surprise I saw my name on a jar sitting on a red ribbon – second place. What caused that sour face Stephanie and Kelly saw? I had eleven competitors in this contest.

I think canning is a dying art. And yes, it is art.

It’s also addicting. Next year, I’m entering a few pie contests, one for dinner rolls, and whatever else I concoct this fall and winter.


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3 Responses to Can It!

  1. WOW! Quite impressive.

  2. Robin says:

    Congratulations, Marty! Does the State Fair have a “writing” category? That should be your next entry.

  3. L L Vergith & Sons LLC L L Vergith & Sons LLC says:

    ” I’m going to raise three ( 3 ) Pabst Blue Ribbons this afternoon to honor your tireless work concocting savory fares ! “

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