Good Old-Fashioned Competition: Rhubarb jelly is out and salsa is in at state fair canning contests

Happiness is a canned commodity. A commodity not sold, but displayed each August at the Missouri and Illinois state fairs.

“Nothing seems to bring more happiness than a jar of home-canned fruits and vegetables,” said Kim Allen, marketing director of the Missouri State Fair, set for Aug. 10 through 20 in Sedalia. “It’s a source of pride for those who home-can. The fair has been giving those people a chance to display their talents since 1901.”

There have been a few other changes over the years, especially at the Illinois State Fair, which began in 1853. For example, salsa wasn’t on the entry forms in 1853. Some entries have been dropped altogether. Missouri dropped canned asparagus and spinach. According to both superintendents, if anyone still wanted to enter asparagus, there’s a category called “other canned vegetables.”

Wild crabapple and rhubarb jellies were big in 1901 but have fallen out of fashion. However, applesauce has remained a favorite entry on both sides of the river for 100 years. Some foods have been separated into their own categories, while others have been lumped together. In Missouri, for instance, black raspberry and red raspberry jam can now be entered into the same category.

“I think the so-called ‘any other sauce’ category is as about as eccentric a category there is,” said Illinois Fair press office manager Matt Rhoades. “I don’t know what gets entered into that category, but I have heard, when it comes to sauces, barbecue sauce is a big one and a favorite category for men to enter.”

In general, more men are entering items into the preservation categories. “Quite a few men are entering the divisions. And some even took blue ribbons,” said Billye Griswold, culinary department superintendent for the Illinois State Fair in Springfield, held this year from Aug. 11 to 20. “A man hasn’t won grand champion yet, but you never know what might happen this year.”

Becoming a state fair grand champion takes more than winning the most blue ribbons; you have to wow the judges with flavor and style. Last year’s Illinois grand champion did just that, with entries that had enough flash and sizzle to make the judges scream.

“I heard this scream from one of my judges on the other side of the room,” Griswold recounted. “We all ran across the room and there it was – the most gorgeous jar of carrots I ever saw (pictured above). They looked like a woven basket.”

Nillie Ringhausen entered that jar of screamingly beautiful carrots, a work of art that demanded the use of 5 pounds of carrots before she could find just the right ones. “I think the secret to that entry or any other I did was patience,” said Ringhausen. “Like anything you home-can and preserve, you have to take your time and do it right. But when you’re canning for the fair it has to look extraordinary.”

Judges at both fairs agree that a winning entry has to look pretty. No, make that great. Uniformity in size is a must. Plus, foods must have good color and liquid that’s clear and fills the jars to the top. When foods are canned and preserved with these guidelines, it’s no wonder Hawkins said there’s nothing better than home-canned foods. “You just can’t beat the taste of homemade.”

The Missouri State Fair’s premium guide, or rule book, lists canning under “preservation” and outlines the rules for entering the division’s 76 subcategories, including canned peaches, corn relish, dill pickles and pear honey. As a former Missouri State Fair blue-ribbon winner, I recall the No. 1 requirement: The maker of the canning jar must match the maker of the lid. No Kerr lid could ever pass on a Ball canning jar.

“Each jar maker produces their lids to fit their own jars,” said Griswold. “Without the right lid, you risk losing your seal. And if you lose the seal, you lose your product.”

Jar and lid consistency has remained the cardinal rule for state fair entries, but to win a blue ribbon, participants today must follow the U.S. Department of Agriculture canning preservation rules. That’s a major change in entry procedures since I last entered the fair in 1980. Today, all canned entries must be processed, or placed in a pressure canner and, under pressure, be brought to a certain temperature. This process kills any potentially harmful bacteria and preserves the canned food by sealing the lid.

“We follow the rules to the letter, especially the processing standards now in place by the National Center of Home Preservation,” said Glenda Hawkins, home economics department superintendent for the Missouri State Fair. “Our judges want to see just how the food was made and check the processing times to ensure product safety.”

USDA regulations recommend processing times for all home-canned products, including jellies and pickles that traditionally were preserved using the water-bath method. The water-bath method requires heating jars and lids in boiling water, filling them directly from the stove and sealing them using the heat generated from the boiling. Processing is done by placing the filled jars in a large kettle and covering them with water, which is then brought to a boil for a prescribed number of minutes.

Some items can still be processed using the traditional method, but most require the pressure-canner method. Hawkins suggested that entrants check with the University of Missouri extension office to find out which items require which processing method.

Ringhausen won’t be entering carrots this year. Instead, she’s looking for something different to wow the judges. “I’m looking forward to the fair. You know, entering gets in your blood. Once you start, it’s hard to stop.”

These same sentiments are true when you start attending state fairs. Once you attend, you want to keep coming back. Preservation exhibits will be on display throughout each fair, and several cooking contests are scheduled. But even if you can’t make it to the fairgrounds, you can re-create a bit of it at home: This year also sees the publication of the “2006 Official Missouri State Fair Cookbook,” a biennual tome that features all the recipes entered during the two preceding years.