Steady now, pace yourself.displayed online, and I’m all over the place. I wanna do the pickled hot peppers, the largest sunflower (first place $25!) and the pumpkin bread—even though I won’t have enough homegrown jalapeños for the first, the birds have nibbled at the second, and I don’t make a particularly good version of the third.
Focus, focus, I tell myself. The culinary arts and agriculture events don’t even happen until Sept. 11-20, but there is this highly recommended pre-registration you can complete online, by mail, or by email that’s due Aug. 28. I am trying to avoid the rookie mistake of committing to too many events, even though registration is free.
This, I realize with a shock, is because I don’t just want to display and participate. I want to win. Me, the person who always claims to worry only about being allowed to participate in, say, Settlers of Catan games or which neighbor has the best lawn rivalries, would very much like a blue or purple ribbon for my efforts. And I want what these good folks call “premiums”—in most cases, $3, $4, or $5 for achieving first, second, or third place in your “lot,” a bit more if you become one of the “best exhibitors,” even more for the big contests, like biggest watermelon, which pays $150.
With enthusiasm only slightly dampened, I decide to approach it like college applications: a couple of safety events, a stretch, a dream. And I set my limit at five entries.
A little wistfully, I drop the “Mmm… Bacon” contest on Sept. 12 from my list, even though first prize is $50 in one of two categories, sweet or savory, and the contestant with the highest score gets free bacon for a year. But I have no recipe worthy of the contest; I don’t think “bake it in a 400 degree oven for 10 minutes” will do the trick.
I also weed out some artistic flower-design contests, even though I can’t wait to see what someone else does with the Class 3-02 category, “Old Time Religion,” with their choice of plant materials; I’m a grower, not an arranger. I dally with the thought of exhibiting five hosta leaves, or coleus, before remembering how the garden here grows and realizing the utter unpredictability of there being five un-buggy leaves of any sort on design day.
As I narrow, I notice I am growing increasingly competitive.
What kind of “other pickle” the pre-registration form asks? Who wants to know? If I actually write down pickled carrots and mint, will there be imitators?
But I manage to contain my ego long enough to decide on these events:
• Beet pickles—I’m going to use those cool bullseye-interior beets and ginger, but don’t let that get around.
• Any other pickle—I can only enter one, so this will be tough. Probably the pickled cherry tomatoes.
• Class 6, perishable vegetables and fruits, three eggplants—they will be judged, on uniformity of size, shape and color; freedom from defects; trueness to type; and proper stage of maturity, and may I say, better them than me.
• A display of five vegetables to be exhibited on a 9-inch plate—trying to work with Mother Nature at harvest time.
• Corn muffins—on this one, my lips are sealed. I have a super recipe for these, one that I’ll happily convert to omit the cornbread mix (mixes are forbidden). It’s already won in 4-H these many moons ago, directly descended from a 1990s Tennessee Valley Authority friend’s wife’s recipe, obtained from her beauty parlor friend. I’m not telling what it’s called, even, but I did call Cakes, Breads, and Pies Department Head Vickie Stipes to make sure I was placing it in the right category.
Indeed, she says, one can enter a “jazzed up” muffin: “Just make sure you fill out the form with what it’s called and what it contains so the judges know it’s going to taste different, and that you’re trying something new.”
Stipes makes me feel great about, at long last, joining the ranks of Tennessee Valley Fair exhibitors. For one thing, she answered the phone number listed right on the exhibition page on the third ring.
“Enter with everything you can come up with,” she says. “Try it out, bring it in. You can only enter once in each category, but you can enter every category. One lady fills out almost the whole entry form; that’s what we like.”
As for rookies such as myself, her best advice does not concern winning, but I aim to follow it.
“Basically,” she says, “just try.”
For an exhibitors catalog or to pre-register for events by Aug. 28: tnvalleyfair.org
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