Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Iowa State Fair Food Competition is Dead to Me

The actual French batard, a couple weeks later with the addition of googly eyes, of course. I have named him Francois.

This past fall, I learned how to make a perfect French bread batard at the King Arthur Flour Baking Education Center in Norwich, Vermont. So, although I didn't really express it out loud to anyone, I was pretty psyched to enter the King Arthur Flour Yeast Bread competition this year at the Iowa State Fair.
I mean, I have spent the last two months making lots and lots of loaves of French bread, trying out different methods, baker's lames and sourdough starter to get it just right in flavor, texture, and appearance. I've made French bread at least twice a week for the last couple of months. Seriously. Lots of bread. I keep finding more demi-baguettes tucked away into my two freezers.
So, when I got to the fair after only 2 1/2 hours of sleep and saw that there were only three entries in the French Bread class at the fair, I thought, "Well, I'll at least get a third place ribbon." To tell the truth, though, I thought I had the blue ribbon in the bag and was really hoping to place for the overall bread, which would have given me a King Arthur Flour gift card to spend. I really thought I was a contender.
I'm going to cut to the chase here: my French bread batard didn't even get a 3rd place ribbon. "How is that even possible, Kelly? I thought you said that there were only three entries." I did say that.
Here's the thing with the judging of breads at the Iowa State Fair: If the judge believes that none of the entries deserves first place, they won't award it. Even if there's just one entry in a class, a judge might give it second place, or third place, or NO place at all. I am telling you the truth. Those "seasoned" judges are tough
This seasoned toughness has frustrated and even angered me in the past (see White Chocolate Macadamia Nut Cinnamon Roll post). But nothing, and I mean NOTHING could have prepared me for what happened this year. 
When you go to the Iowa State Fair Food Competition in the Elwell Family Food Center, you'll see the judging rooms set up with tables in the front where the judges and their scribes sit, and then there are the chairs, facing the judges' table, for the audience consisting of the entrants, their supporters, and other interested folks.
I was sitting in the front row, and watched intently as the third judge from the left started cutting into the French breads. I saw her taste the first one, make some comments that her scribe wrote down, and then I saw her cut into the next loaf. She made more comments, and then she cut into my loaf last, scrunched up her nose, made some comments, scrunched her nose some more as she examined the interior and exterior of my loaf, made more comments, and then the scribe started the wrap-up procedures and the judge asked for the microphone.
My mind was whirring, and my heart was thumping, as I listened to her judgment. Did I look away when she tasted the other breads? Is she really finished? "There were three entries in the French bread class, and I'm only awarding first place to ____."
What the...?
She didn't even TASTE the other two loaves! She awarded a blue ribbon to a loaf she didn't even taste, and she didn't place my loaf that she didn't taste either. Oh. My. Gosh.
What just happened?
I am so DONE with this competition. I decided then and there. Completely. DONE. 
With my heart pumping hard, I walked across the front, over to my loaf on the reject table at the side, and I picked up the two pieces of my loaf to confirm that the judge had not tasted any of it (a huge no-no in food competition--you're supposed to wait to pick up your entry in the back after the tags have been processed). 
Then I walked straight back to the food competition superintendent and lodged my complaint/accusation. 
All of the details at this point just don't matter. We looked at the loaf, I pointed out the judge to the superintendent, we looked at the score card to confirm that my entry was actually judged (as opposed to disqualified for some reason)--and what do you know! I got 40 out of 50 points for flavor! Amazing. 
At this point I was completely disillusioned and disgusted. I went home without really knowing if they were going to do anything about it, but only partially caring because I had already decided that I was done with that farcical food competition. Forever.
Did I mention that I'd only gotten 2 1/2 hours of sleep the night before?
Of course, my curiosity got the better of me, and after a long nap at home, and a yummy dinner with my family at Zombie Burger, I had my husband drop me off at the fair so I could see how my other four entries did that day. 
All four of those entries placed: 2 first place and 2 second place. 
Armed with this satisfaction, I found the assistant to the superintendent, and chatted with her about what had gone down earlier in the day.
I had a chance to explain my frustration some more, as well as my realization that a bread competition is really not that big of a deal in the light of real life. First-world problem. I get that. 
I also reiterated, though, that I cannot compete any longer because each time I do, I risk this frustration and disappointment. I take the competition too seriously. I just do.
Now, you may be wondering, as I had been, if someone actually confronted the judge with my accusation. The assistant superintendent said that the judge had been spoken to, and the judge said that she did taste the entries. I maintain that she is lying through her teeth. Whatever. She'll still be a judge, and I will not be competing.
Many people I've talked to have said that I need to write the Des Moines Register about this, or dust myself off and continue competing. I will do neither. Despite that ridiculous judge (and some other ridiculous judges, by the way), the superintendent of the Food Competition and her team really do an amazing job at organizing and pulling off what is purportedly the largest food competition anywhere. It truly is a well-oiled machine, and lots of folks really do enjoy competing in that environment.
It really is a shame, though, that judges like the one I got are allowed to degrade the integrity and legitimacy of the competition. Other home bakers may have the emotional maturity and strength to not get all wrapped up in the drama and are able to take the injustice and disappointment in stride, but I recognize my own limitations, and am choosing to stay away.
Thanks for listening.

My five entries for the day
I got a ride from the parking lot at the VFW in this awesome truck because I brought the guys some rolls.
The three French bread entries. Mine is top left. The top right got first place.
The judge said she tasted a little bit of this bread. Can you tell where she took a piece? I can't either.

Notice that 50% of the points are for "Flavor."

First place in the Cinnamon Raisin class (Cinnamon Raisin Sourdough Bread)

First place in the Cinnamon Roll (with nuts) class (Croissant Caramel Sticky Buns)

Second place in the Cinnamon Roll class (Croissant Cinnamon Rolls)

Second place in the Non-Sweet Yeast Roll Other Than Named class (Pretzel Rolls)

First place in the Friends class. Kara and Christie brought me flowers and adult beverages to cheer me up.


  1. I am so sorry that happened! As a fellow Iowan I am super disappointed in the state fair :(


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