Mattie Roark set three pieces of peanut butter fudge on the table and carefully wrote her name on the back of the family recipe she used to cook up the tan squares of sugary goodness. Maybe in 70 years, she’ll still be bringing homemade candies to the Appalachian Fair creative cooking competition, just like Florence Anderson.
Though they are from different generations, the 8- and 79-year-old certainly have something in common — they would both like to take home a blue ribbon.
“This is just to say that I made something special,” Anderson said. “The prize money isn’t as important as those big blue ribbons.”
“I’ll be looking for a blue ribbon beside my plate,” said Roark, of Gray.
Anderson, from Bristol, is depending on a 60-year-old brownie recipe and a special raw-peanut-based peanut butter brittle concoction to please the palates of the three judges who will taste and score her treats based on four categories. Taste counts for the majority, but creativity, appearance and overall appeal can separate the winners from the losers.
“There are so many good cooks who enter the contests, that sometimes eight people deserve to win, but it can only go to one person,” said Lisa Bradley, director of the Farm and Home Building at the Appalachian Fair.
The monetary prizes serve as little if any motivation to those who enter the contest.
“It can’t be about the prize money, because it doesn’t cover the cost of quality ingredients,” Bradley said. “It’s still just about the ribbon. Cooking competitions are such a tradition, but there’s not much of a place for them anymore. Fairs are about the only places people can compete.”
To continue racking up ribbons, Anderson follows her recipes to a T. She’s compared them to others over the years, but hasn’t found one that tops the brownie instructions found in the tattered recipe book given to her by her mother-in-law when she got married.
Blountville native Deborah Holman had a different opinion when she decided to switch up some of the steps in making yeast banana nut bread. Without trying it in advance of the creative cooking competition deadline, Holman poured a mixture of butter, cinnamon and sugar on top of the loaf, instead of brushing on the butter and sprinkling the sugar.
The dark, bubbly topping provided a lesson for the cook.
“I didn’t follow the directions completely, and it didn’t taste as good,” she said. “That was God telling me to follow directions instead of being so headstrong.”
Holman also decided to stretch the sourdough recipe into four loaves, instead of three, and was unhappy with the small loaves of bread.
“I decided I would bring them on and let other people be encouraged that it doesn’t have to look good to taste good,” said Holman, who describes herself as a regular country home-style cook.
Another first-time participant, Carol Hensley of Blountville, considered her decorated sugar cookies and peanut butter surprise cookies a “bucket list” item. “I have come to the fair for the last 10 years and said ‘Gosh I wish I would have entered,’ ” Hensley said. “So this year, I finally did. I think everyone needs to get out there and do what they want to.”
The cutout cookies of a scarecrow, a quilt and the state of Tennessee, complete with the 2011 Appalachian Fair logo, were frosted in colors of white, turquoise and purple.
The cookie-making fanatic has more than 700 cookie cutters and said the ones she turned in weren’t even her best work. She’s at the top of her game when she’s busy baking cookies and decorating them.
Besides the sought-after first place blue ribbon, a master will also be chosen out of the cookie, candy and bread category. Bradley said the master category winner used to be determined from the single best item in each category, but now it’s based on the top three scores.
“It’s about consistency,” she said. “A master at anything doesn’t mean one. For example, the master cookie baker isn’t always someone who won first place.”
Each baker has his or her own tricks for entering top treats, but no matter the age, it’s all about presenting a food that tastes just a little bit better than the last time it was created.
“I like coming up with my own things,” Roark said when asked about what she might enter next year. “And I like doing what I want with it.”
Live judging of other food competitions on the stage in the Home & Garden Building:
Wednesday, Aug. 24 — Home cook of the year 3 p.m.
Thursday, Aug. 25 — Pies and cobblers 3 p.m.