County fair competitors test skills, put best dishes forward for judges

Surely Simon Cowell and Heidi Klum don’t have to work under these kinds of conditions.

And it’s a pretty sure bet the “Top Chef” judges haven’t ever had to taste-test 107 separate dishes — including nine different takes on corn bread and not one, but two versions of candy in which the main ingredient was potatoes — in less than three hours.

All while sitting slightly downwind from the elephant tent.

“I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to eat anything sweet ever again,” Cindy Medford groaned inside an exhibition hall at Jim R. Miller Park in Cobb County on Wednesday night, warily eyeing four layer cakes the size of small tree stumps on the table in front of her.

“She was going to judge the fried pies,” confided Mary Etta Norsworthy, one of Medford’s fellow judges in the baked goods competition at this year’s North Georgia State Fair. “I had to say, ‘No, we already judged that.’ ”

Who could blame anyone for being a little pie-eyed right now? County fairs are still part of our lifeblood here, an annual overdoing-the-fried-dough-and-Ferris-wheel rite of fall stretching from mid-September in Gwinnett (its 10-day fair concludes today) through next month’s Georgia National Fair in Perry.

Yet plenty has changed from the time when fairs brought far flung rural residents together annually for wholesome entertainment and good natured competition over who put up the best pickles or raised the largest pig. The North Georgia State Fair, which runs through next Sunday, is on Facebook now. But thanks to Cobb’s phenomenal growth and development in recent decades, its once robust livestock and agricultural competitions are things of the past.

“There’s no land in Cobb [for people] to do that on a large scale now,” said Tod A. Miller, longtime manager of the fair, which this year has a “Party With the Animals” theme, complete with a petting barn and tiger, bear and elephant shows. “But the cooking [competition] is an institution.”

One-day baking frenzy

Some of that’s clearly in the genes, with the same individuals and families competing year after year. Pop culture plays a part, too: Several competitors confessed to being addicted to TV’s “Cake Boss” or “Iron Chef.” Another was inspired to enter her first contest by the pie baking-centric movie “Waitress.”

“In the last two years I’ve started creating my own recipes, and I wanted to get some competitive feedback,” said Sarah Gilbreath, a 22-year-old Georgia Tech grad student from Marietta who blogs about food crafts at “Either I want someone to tell me, ‘You’re really good, keep going’ or ‘You’re really bad. Stop.’ ”

Apparently, there’s nothing like the adrenalin rush of baking under pressure. This 78th edition of the fair boasts more than 30 competitive categories, ranging from woodworking and horticulture to canning and lookin’ pretty. But unlike the would-be winners of “Tiny Miss North GA State Fair” or the “novelty pepper” growing crown, baking competition entries come with a ticking time bomb as a key ingredient.

After all, you can make the best-looking Bundt cake in the world, but if it doesn’t taste just-from-the-oven fresh, forget winning the blue ribbon.

The result is a one-day frenzy of shopping, sifting, baking and official tasting that whizzes by with as much high-stakes drama as the Human Cannonball, another of the fair’s big attractions. Think “Little House on the Prairie” meets “Iron Chef” and you’ll have a fairly good idea of what Wednesday was like in the Dantzler household in Marietta.

“We Xerox-ed all the recipes we’re using so the cookbooks wouldn’t get in our way,” Diane Dantzler said as her 13-year-old daughter, Samantha, measured out flour for making cinnamon raisin bread from scratch. Their entries had to be at the fairgrounds by 8 p.m.

“We’re planning on making 12 or 13 things,” she said. “If we stay on schedule, we should be able to do it.”

Process and pound cake

The day wouldn’t officially end until 10:59 p.m., when the judges wrapped up category 17 in the adult division by sampling a contestant’s “Sprite Pound Cake.” All afternoon and evening, contestants clutching their baked goods had tromped in past a giant plastic cow stationed outside.

More volunteers grouped the boxes by category and special needs: Was it a bar or a drop cookie? Decorated cake or iced layer cake? Refrigeration required or not?

At least one thing wasn’t in dispute. “Pound cakes have to be a category all on their own,” said volunteer Rhonda Collins, who was helping to check in the “Crispy Cream Cheese Pound Cake” made by east Cobb resident Evelyn England.“This is the South.”

Memories, not money

England entered nine categories. Still, that paled in comparison to the Danztler juggernaut. When their minivan pulled up at 7:25 p.m., it also contained corn breads baked by Diane’s mother and husband, swelling the family’s overall entry total to 15. They’d probably spent about $130 on ingredients, Diane, a bookkeeper at Russell Elementary School in Smyrna, estimated. Considering each category conferred a modest $5 first prize ($4 in youth divisions), that hardly seemed cost-effective. Considering all the memories in the making, though, that hardly seemed to matter.

Unlike memories, though, baked goods don’t last long. After each category’s judging was completed Wednesday night — the judges sampled identical-size slices from each entry, periodically sipping water to cleanse their palates — photos were snapped of the top three finishers. Those will be on display throughout the fair. The “originals” either went back home with contestants Thursday afternoon or were donated to MUST Ministries in Marietta.

The judges had had their fill. But only for awhile.

That’s an “institution” too.

“We don’t see each other very much for a year and then we all come back and it’s Old Home Week,” Crystal Perry said. “It’s like we’re one big, happy, overstuffed family.”