While I waited on hold, I tried to temper my expectations. Surely there couldn’t have been more than a couple dozen entries. Then came the answer: 3. And why no first place? Apparently the judges didn’t feel any of the entries “were of blue ribbon quality.” (Pity the guy who didn’t even get third place in a three-person contest.)
The next year, I decided to do some reconnaissance at the fair to figure out what it would take to win a ribbon. The winning mints that year were much bigger and more pillow-y than mine. And I noticed something really interesting: although the rules require that the entry include 12 mints, each plate on display contained 11 mints. That meant that only one mint from each entry was ever tasted. Now, my idea of state fair judging was based on Aunt Bea’s pickles being judged at the county fair. I thought there would be a team of experts who had to sample several mints to narrow down the ultimate winner. Evidently, that’s not the way it works.
So I decided not to fret over whether the mints had the right flavor and had creamed properly. I needed to concentrate on looks. After all, it doesn’t matter how delicious they are if the judges can tell just by looking that a batch isn’t in the running.
A few weeks later, I got a call from someone at the N.C. State Fair office. Nita Whitfield of Durham, a repeat blue ribbon winner (and subject of profiles in both The News & Observer and Our State magazine), asked if I wanted to contact her for pointers and advice. She ended up coming to my house and making a batch of mints in my kitchen.
Whitfield had very specific requirements. For instance, she used only Dixie Crystals sugar and a Revere Ware pot. Her recipe made batches twice the size of mine and used more than twice the amount of peppermint oil. While I eventually stuck with my Granny Faith’s original recipe, I did adopt some of Whitfield’s techniques. And I inherited my other grandmother’s Revere Ware pot, giving my mints a lovely connection to both grandmothers.
I usually start getting ready for the fair in September. I make four to six batches and take samples of each to my dad for testing. I make all my trial mints the same color in case I need to pull from multiple batches to get the perfect dozen.
Each year when the fair rolls around, I’m surprised to see there’s still a category for pulled mints. As I picked up my fifth blue ribbon, I knew better than to ask how many entries there had been. I just take heart in knowing that even if there’s not much competition, the judges still consider them “blue ribbon quality.”
From Faith B. Garrard and adapted from the Pleasant Green United Methodist Church cookbook 1980.
2 cups white granulated sugar
4 Tbsp. (1/2 stick) salted butter, plus extra for buttering
3/4 cup hot water
4 drops peppermint oil
2 drops food coloring
Place sugar, butter and hot water into saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring constantly until boiling. Cook without stirring until thermometer registers 260 degrees. Pour onto buttered marble slab. Add peppermint oil and food coloring.
Immediately start to lift up the edges and fold them over. Then lift up the newly formed edges and turn them over. Move and turn the whole mixture around on the marble, moving and pressing it to cooler spots so the marble can absorb the heat.
As soon as candy cools enough to be handled, pick it up and start to pull. Pull and twist, looping back around to pull again, until the mixture starts to hold its shape. When it seems to feel dry and ridges have formed, pull into a rope and cut into pieces with scissors. Let dry about 45 minutes. Store in tightly covered container until creamy.
Yield: about 48 to 60 mints