Cooking and Baking Competitions Bring Sugar and Spice to the Nebraska State Fair

A cake in the shape of the number 150, honoring the 150th Nebraska State Fair. (Photo by Allison Mollenkamp, NET News)
August 28, 2019 - 5:45am

A mainstay of the Nebraska state fair is the food competitions. Judges take in nearly 600 entries ranging from pickles to cakes using a particular kind of flour.


“The very first time I won grand-champion at state fair, was way back when, was for a lemon meringue,” said Phyllis Bartholomew.

Bartholomew is a champion pie baker and proud resident of Columbus, Nebraska.

“I had always shied away from meringues because humidity and meringues usually don’t do well together," Bartholomew said. "But I thought, well you know what, everybody else is dealing with the humidity, so I entered a lemon meringue and I won grand champion with my lemon meringue.”

Deb Langenheder says chocolate chip cookies are the most popular category. (Photo by Allison Mollenkamp, NET News)

Bartholomew taught herself to bake pies, mostly from books. She advises new bakers to study up, and to ask for help from those with more pie-related experience. Everyone has to start somewhere.

“Well I had entered some local county fairs, then I just thought, you know, I did fairly well and I thought, ‘oh heck, we oughta try the state fair,’ and I think the first one I entered was an apple,” Bartholomew said.

Eventually Bartholomew’s talents took her beyond the rolling fields of Nebraska. She entered a national pie baking competition, and in 2004, she won.

Bartholomew won the state fair competition two years in a row in 2015 and 2016. This year she’s giving a pie baking demonstration for fair goers, so she’s ineligible for the competition.

Pies are only one of many many food competitions at the state fair. There are dozens of categories for baked goods and canned goods, as well as appetizers and hot foods.

Kathy Murphy judges many of the baked good categories, quietly cutting into loaves of bread, sampling each one and writing notes for the baker.

Kathy Murphy (left) and Marie Rouse (right) judge one of the bread categories. (Photo by Allison Mollenkamp, NET News)

“All I need is just the flavor," Murphy said. "Sometimes I’d like to take a big bite, but it’s a long day, so a small, just a small bite on the end of your tongue will give you the flavor.”

How much experience does Murphy bring to her job judging Nebraskan’s efforts in the kitchen?

“Well, as a 4Her I did judging, so really for a long time,” Murphy said.

Murphy missed a few years when she was a teacher and had to go back to school during the fair, but now that she’s retired she’s been back on the grind for a while.

Murphy also has experience in the kitchen herself.

“I think I did more baking when I was working than I do now that I’m retired," Murphy said. "I don’t have anyone at home. My husband’s gone and my son’s farming, not at home, and I go, ‘oh, I’ll just run up to Runza.’”

 Across the room, Marty Minchow judged the canned goods, which include everything from jelly to pickles.

“So you can always anticipate having a headache after the end of the day, and you look for some protein to kind of round out your day,” Minchow said.

Minchow also judged canned fruits and vegetables to exacting standards, which surprisingly, don’t include the taste. The type of jar matters, though.

“And then it’s by look," Minchow said. "The color, how well is the jar filled. In the case of the fruits and vegetables we look for a half inch headspace rather than the one quarter inch that we have in preserves, jams, and jellies.”

Marty Minchow (left) and Kathy Schroeder (right) work on one of the canned food categories. (Photo by Allison Mollenkamp, NET News)

Headspace in a jar or the doneness of a loaf of bread will decide these competitions, but food contests have an impact that goes beyond the kitchen.

Deb Langenheder is Food Superintendent for the Nebraska State Fair.

“Oh I like the exhibitors. The exhibitors are great," Langenheder said. "Just working directly with the exhibits and just meeting the people. They are so nice.”

Recipes from each year’s competitions become a cookbook to be sold at the next year’s fair. There’s even a whole category for “tried and true” recipes that have appeared in previous fair cookbooks.

That’s just one way baking and cooking span generations at the fair.

“This year we’ve had a lot of new ones, first-timers in this year," Langenheder said. "But there’s my old ones, we’ve got a core group that come in here. And they do it for the love of the fair. They enjoy it.”

The love of the fair –and perhaps a love of jelly and cookies, will keep Nebraskans cooking up their own concoctions long after the fair gates close next week.

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