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Homemade food. 5 weeks of display. Behind the scenes of the Arizona State Fair culinary entries

By Chelsey Heath
Published: Friday, October 13, 2023 - 7:25am
Updated: Saturday, October 14, 2023 - 8:06am

Cooler with cake on shelves
Chelsey Heath/KJZZ
Culinary entries at the Arizona State Fair in Phoenix on Sept. 22, 2023.

The exhibition is a key part of the Arizona State Fair. Entrants from around the stand submit everything from art projects to textiles to pumpkins — but today we’re focusing on one category: culinary.

Culinary items range from baked goods to more shelf-stable foods like jams and jellies and pickled foods.

This year, the fair runs Sept. 22-Oct. 29, a little more than five weeks. So you might wonder: How do the winning items stay fresh in their cases at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum throughout the event?

To be frank, not everything does, according to Karen Searle, entries director for the Arizona State Fair.

“People enter everything from cookies and cake and pies and jams and jellies. We also do a cake-decorating competition, which is on Styrofoam,” Searle said.

“It’s pretty difficult to keep some food — not all — but some of it looking fresh.”

Searle and her staff have a few tricks up their sleeves, though.

Case full of food and ribbons
Chelsey Heath/KJZZ
Culinary entries at the Arizona State Fair in Phoenix on Sept. 22, 2023.

There are restrictions on ingredients for some items — no whipped cream-based frosting for example.

Items aren’t dropped off to the state fairgrounds until the last possible minute — just two days before the fair begins. All judging is completed the day before opening.

“It takes a lot of people to judge all that, and it takes over 12 hours,” Searle said.

After judging is complete, the winning items are set on display with their ribbons and identification tags by the afternoon when the fair opens.

Once items are displayed, staff do periodic checks to see how things are looking. Because all of the items are homemade and don’t contain any preservatives, they are even more susceptible to breaking down.

“Let’s take a pie for example, because obviously it’s been cut open to try it. If it starts looking bad, we might cut some of it away to make it look nice."

“If it comes to a place we can’t make it look nice,” Searle said the items are disposed of but the ID tag and ribbon remain on display.

Case of jams and jellies with ribbons
Chelsey Heath/KJZZ
A case of the winning jams and jellies at the Arizona State Fair in Phoenix on Sept. 22, 2023.

Each category is judged by a panel that might include professional bakers or chefs along with laypeople — Searle said it’s especially easy to convince fair staff to volunteer to judge cakes and cookies.

In the last few years, the exhibition portion was moved to the Coliseum, which Searle said she thinks will get more eyes on the items.

Searle also said they look to change up their categories and add trending items each year. This includes sugar-free and gluten-free categories this year, and a planned keto category for 2024.

At the end of the event, “99.9% of culinary items are disposed of,” Searle said. Contestants will often come back to retrieve their canning jars, though.

And here’s Searle’s pitch for people to stop by between a roller coaster ride and a giant turkey leg:

“I like to remind them that there is a very unique community access about entries. And whether you enter or not, seeing what your neighbors … how creative they are, or how ingenious they are, whether it’s baking cookies or making a Lego Ferris wheel.”

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