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At The State Fair Of Texas, Home Cooks Vie For Coveted 'Best In Show' Ribbon

Contestants in one of the State Fair of Texas' cooking competitions look on as judges sample their dishes. Cooks competed in a citrus themed challenge and another inspired by fair foods in contests on October 9, 2019.

It's a bright, cool morning at Fair Park.

Inside the Creative Arts Building, home cooks arrive to a test kitchen for one of the State Fair of Texas' many cooking competitions. Hundreds of amateur chefs take part in these highly competitive contests, and judges sample thousands of homemade recipes for everything from bread and cakes to pickled vegetables.

In the end, only one cook takes home a coveted "Best In Show" ribbon in each contest. 

Today, two contests are taking place: a citrus-themed challenge and another inspired by fair foods.

Credit Miguel Perez / KERA News
Carollyn Greene, a staff member with the State Fair's Creative Arts team, helps keep track of dishes submitted to the cooking contest on October 9, 2019.

Brenda Simpson of Dallas is rolling in a wagon full of dishes she prepared the night before.

"And because of that I slept on the couch cause I was waiting for something to cool off," Simpson says. "When I woke up it was 5 o'clock."

Simpson hopes her candied orange rinds dipped in chocolate will delight the judges.

She says the key to sweet peels is cooking out all the bitterness.

"You boil it in hot water five times to get all that strong citrusy taste off," Simpson says. 

Contestants have about an hour to plate their dishes before they're whisked away to await judging.

Dianne Ragain of Dallas is here early to put the final touches on her toffee-crusted fruit bites.

Her toffee recipe is simple — butter, sugar, Karo syrup and water. But she's confident it'll be a hit. 

"You cook it until it reaches a stage that you can hold your spoon up and it makes a string," she says. "It's called a hard crack stage. You pour it onto a cookie sheet, and let it cool and break into pieces."

Credit Miguel Perez / KERA News
Dianne Ragain arrived early to put the final touches on her submissions for the cooking contests on October 9, 2019.

Ragain has raked in a good deal of ribbons since she started entering the contests in 2007.

"I do this in honor of my mom," she says. "She passed away about six years ago, and she was such a baker. So, every time I get a ribbon, I kiss it and hold it up to heaven. It's just my thing. I feel her with me when I do these contests, so it's a lot of fun."

Paula Joy Weiss Kindred of Plano is another longtime contestant.

She's made dolmas — grape leaves stuffed with cauliflower rice and served with a tart Greek sauce made with lemons and eggs.

"Most people plan for months and months. I usually sit down the night before and decide what I'm going to make! I usually do pretty well," Weiss Kindred says. 

But, she isn't the only one playing it by ear.

The clock's ticking, and Regina Farris of Forney is only just arriving.

She has a few minutes to assemble a sundae made with some unusual ingredients.

"On the bottom layer, I've got the shrimp and grits. Then there's the grated cheese, the bacon and the greens. Parsley and green onion. Then, I've got my lemon wedge on the side there."

Her hands tremble as she races against the clock.

There's been a spill, so she calls out to a competitor for help. Brenda Simpson rushes to help, and Farris manages to beat the clock and submit her dishes in on time. 

"We help each other out and have each other's backs. Sometimes there's dissention among the ranks, but all in all, we're a pretty good family bunch."

Now, contestants wait. They circle the test kitchen, watching eagerly as judges dig in. 

Credit Miguel Perez / KERA News
The "Fair Concoctions" challenge is a new addition to the bevy of cooking contests that take place during the State Fair of Texas.

Christi Erpillo is a longtime concessionaire at the State Fair.

"I am looking for something that's never been done before, which is going to be hard because all of us concessionaires are pretty creative," Erpillo says. "That's something else that I'm looking for is creativity. And something that tastes good."

She and the other judges have 52 entries to taste today.

For some contestants, winning a ribbon means everything. They are awarded to 1st, 2nd and 3rd place, plus honorable mentions. There's also a special purple ribbon awarded to the best of all the first place winners.

After three hours, the results are in. Regina Farris and her savory shrimp and grits sundae have come out on top.

"This is only the second ever 'Best Of Show' in 12 years," she says. "Worth it. Worth the effort."

But there's little time to soak in the win.

She and the other contestants are already planning their recipes for next year.

Miguel Perez is an assistant producer at KERA. He produces local content for Morning Edition and KERA News. He also produces The Friday Conversation, a weekly interview series with North Texas newsmakers.