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Vying For That Blue Ribbon: Culinary Competitions At The Arizona State Fair

By Stina Sieg
Published: Friday, October 14, 2016 - 8:06am
Updated: Friday, October 14, 2016 - 2:12pm
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(Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)
In the end, the family didn't place this year. But Sharon Houser wasn't upset. The family is planning to retool their apple butter and try again next year, and add a pie or two, as well.
Stina Sieg/KJZZ
Fair organizers say, for years, the number of people submitting to culinary contests stagnated - even as the Valley's population soared. But more recently, there's been renewed interest in this time-old tradition.

Four enthusiastic generations of Kathryn’s Krause’s family were gathered in her warm, cinnamon-scented kitchen in Mesa, for a process they all admit sounds pretty gross. As she squished and pummeled cooked apple pulp through a food mill, you could hear a smattering of giggles — a quirky beginning for something delicious, called apple butter.

“It’s not butter!” Krause said, grinning.

Instead, it’s a spread made of apples, cinnamon, sugar and maybe some other secret spices. And at the Krause house, it’s a fall tradition. A few years ago, Krause decided it was time to submit her apple butter to the Arizona State Fair.

Why?

“I’m from the Midwest. That’s kind of what we do,” she said, starting to giggle. “We compete. With food!”

And she really does mean “we.” Her son and his wife were stirring the pot of bubbling apple butter. A few feet away, Krause’s daughter, Melissa, and her 6-year-old son were using tongs to fish out canning jar lids from a pot of boiling water.

“I want to win!” Melissa Krause said. “Of course I want to win.”

And they’ve got a fighting chance. This will be the family’s fourth time entering the fair. Once, they got nothing. But twice, they came in second. Krause’s mom, Sharon Houser, said each time, they make the apple butter here, over the course of two days. It’s a chance for them all to get together, while wearing home-made aprons passed down through the generations. This recipe comes from Houser’s mother, Grandma Margaret.

“To do it as a family, that is the most important part to me,” Houser said, tearing a bit. “And my mother is looking down, and smiling at all of us today.”

This family’s story is one of many. This year, the Arizona State Fair got nearly 500 total entries across in its various culinary competitions from all corners of the state. That’s not as many as generations ago, but fair officials say they’ve seen new excitement about these contests, thanks to the popularity of cooking shows and foodie culture. A few days later, people are dropping off their creations at the fairgrounds’ cavernous coliseum.

Some are brand-new to this, like Kyle from Chandler, wearing a Snoopy shirt and a shy smile.

“My name is Kyle Avery,” he said. “I’m 11 years old, and I made brownies for the state fair.” 

Avery said if he were to win, he’d feel “great, because I’d know my brownies were the best.”

Others are old pros, like Karen Buckley from Phoenix, who goes all out.

This year’s bounty includes, “Chocolate chip cookies, molasses cookies, peanut butter cookies, lemon bars, shortbread, macaroons,” she said, adding her coworkers love this time of year – when she brings extras to the office.

And then there’s white-haired Patricia Albritton, who drove all the way from Payson to drop off her lemon-flavored fruitcake and German chocolate pecan pie.

“Well, I’m a native, and I thought I’d better do it before I get too old,” she joked.

It’s her first time at the state fair, but Albritton wasn’t.

“Because I enter the Payson Fair all the time, and I win lots of ribbons,” she said.

As long tables started to fill up with goodies from Springerville, Mesa, and St. Johns, Kathryn Krause and her mom Sharon Houser showed up with two caramel-colored jars of apple butter.

She joked that that leaving their apple butter here kind of feels like the first day of school.

“It’s like, take good care of it!” Krause said.

“Are you sure you can handle it?” Houser said, laughing. “I don’t want to just hand it over to anybody.”

Especially since this could be their year.

“Win! Win! Win!” they yell, in a good-natured chant.

“We’re just a little bit competitive” Krause said.

The next day, I have to tell them they didn’t win anything this time around. But they’re not sad. Sharon Houser said it’s not like they lost. They had a good time making it. And next year, she said, they’re going to submit a pie, too.

And how did everyone else do?

Patricia Albritton won third place for her German chocolate pecan pie. Karen Buckely won two first-place ribbons, one second-place and four third-place ribbons for her cookies. Kyle Avery did not place in his first year as a participant.

The Arizona State Fair runs Wednesday through Sunday through Oct. 30.

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