Behind the Scenes at Iowa's State Fair Cookie Contest
As I pin on my name badge, a family stops to gawk. Am I going to judge this contest, they ask curiously? "Yep," I say. "One bite of every cookie."
Their eyes widen. They giggle and drift off, slurping ice cream. "Can you imagine what that would be like?" the mom asks. Her son shakes his head in wonder. I can't blame them. Once upon a time, I couldn't either.
When I became Midwest Living's food editor in 2012 and inherited my judge's seat at our Iowa State Fair contest, I assumed it would be a lark. Eat a few cookies, name a favorite, then head out for a corn dog. Wrong. Over two days each August, some 600 cookies baked by dozens of home cooks vie in about 70 classes-subcategories as familiar as Oatmeal-Raisin or as weirdly specific as Three-Layer Bar Cookies Other than Named. At the end of a day in the Elwell Family Food Center, you want an antacid, not a ride down the Giant Slide.
And that's to say nothing of the emotional toll. My first year, I misread the room, blithely overlooking fine-print misdemeanors like cookies being submitted on wrong-size plates. I learned of this when the entrants, who sit for hours in folding chairs watching the five judges nibble away, came up to tell me I should have disqualified guilty cookies. Some whispered gentle advice for a clueless noob. Others scolded. One guy just met my eyes across the crowd and shook his head in searing disapproval. The next day he apologized, explaining that when you pour your heart into perfecting recipes all year, the passion is real, and rules matter. I went home chastened, inspired and craving salad.
LET THE GAMES BEGIN
Several years later, I know better. Badged up, I gather the other judges for a huddle to review the manual. I'm no longer a rookie, but I still defer to their decades of experience. Some of them will spend the whole week in this crucible of home cooking, ranking thousands of cloverleaf rolls, grape jellies and pickled beets. Their pedigrees are legit. Claudette Taylor has taught classes in fair judging. Before tasting, she scans each recipe, noting if the entrant omitted details like oven temperature. Pat Berry takes a scientific approach, breaking cookies into bits to examine texture and chip distribution. When she tells a contestant, "Hold onto that recipe," you know it's gold.
I take the mic, introduce our contest-and we're off. Right out of the gate, I'm assigned that crazy three-layer bar class, a parade of ooey, gooey, jammy, crumbly, sweet and (blessedly) salty treats. It's only 10:30, and I already feel a bit queasy. I declare my winners. Second place is a No-No-Nanaimo bar. "I don't know how to pronounce it, but I sure know how to eat it," I wisecrack. The audience laughs appreciatively. I'm back.
Next up is Lemon Bars. One leans heavily on nutmeg. Another comes with buttercream. Some have too much powdered sugar. Others too little. No one nails the tartness. Oh well. Better luck next year. I name my winners, gulp more water.
And so it goes. Down the table, each judge tackles class after class. While we eat, our writers listen. Your writer is your secretary. She (I've never seen a male one) sits close with a pen to transcribe comments. She tallies the points, then opens the cards to reveal the names so the judge can announce who takes blue, red and white. You never just say the winners though. You give the why. I explain that butter-flavor shortening makes a cookie taste artificial. That you should never skip salt. That sometimes, an ugly cookie tastes the best. The crowd nods and applauds.
Runners ferry away the second- and third-place winners for display, stashing the victors for a final judgement. The whole Elwell scene is charmingly analog. The staplers. The tags. The runners. The writers. The corded phones. The hundreds of hands through which each cookie, pie or murky jar of canned chicken (yes, really) passes, on its humble quest from home kitchen to state fair glory.
FOR EACH COOKIE, A STORY
At some point, a judge asks if Robin Tarbell-Thomas, who just won the Scandinavian class, is here. "I'm not sure she really exists," a regular in the crowd calls out. "They say she's like the Keebler elf."
I've never seen Robin either, but I know her cookies. They're flawless. Prim, tidy, often garnished with a laser-precise drizzle. Robin is legend. When I finally meet her for a photo, she arrives with her mom, Olive Jean, and daughter Molly, all dressed in victory blue. They've ruled fair contests for five generations. OJ recalls leaving dirty dishes in the sink as they raced to turn in entries, while someone in the back seat fixed Molly's hair for the Most Braids contest. I ask why they don't stay for judging. "Because they're out for blood, blood, blood!" OJ jokes. (Olive Jean passed away as we sent this story to press, and I will always remember the twinkle in her eye as she told me that-and her sweet clarification that really, they exchange Christmas cards with all their state fair friends.)
The omnipresent yin to Robin's elusive yang is Judy Kiburz Harrison, who parks for the drama and jots judging feedback like a baseball scout. She entered 60 classes across several contests this year. Judy excels at old-fashioned drop cookies, petite and familiar. She crushes the Ranger Cookie class with a round morsel of buttery oats, Rice Krispies-and what's that flavor? "Beer Nuts!" someone in the crowd bursts out. Yes. I've been caught unawares by this cookie before. Judy learned her peanutty trick from her mother, Barb, who died not long ago as well. If the cat's out, I wonder, why don't others copy it? Maybe a mix of both pride and respect. You can't stake a place in cookie history with someone else's secret ingredient. Beer Nuts belong to Barb and Judy.
Glee, on the other hand, belongs to Tammy Post. Every time she wins a ribbon, she lets out a whoop. Bill, her retired firefighter husband, who loyally sits through the entire thing every year, gives her a squeeze. Tammy trials her recipes on his station house buddies. The Chocolate Chip Cookie class has been her white whale. This year she added an egg yolk for richness, and cornstarch too. Maybe it thickens dough like gravy, she muses. I'm not sure I buy her logic, but what do I know? Because this year, Tammy wins the blue.
BEHIND THE CURTAIN
Late on the second day, we gather to select overall champs. Each judge scoots away cookies she knows don't warrant further calories. (Adios, lemon bar.) About 20 class-winners remain-and things get serious. Each judge jockeys for cookies she loved. It's vaguely democratic, but also a bit Darwinian. A debate erupts over a cutout made with rye flour, orange blossom honey and Grand Marnier. I love the trendy ingredients and elegant flair. Another judge agrees. An ally! But this cookie is different, and in the Elwell building, different is a tough sell. A longtime judge pinches off a bit and grimaces. The rye cookie is out.
We move on to an apple bar I judged. It's lumpy, bumpy and scrumptious. I'm about to launch my offensive, but then remember my first year behind the curtain, when Claudette peered through her glasses at a tasty raspberry-crumb bar and said, "Imagine that in the glass case. Does it look like a prizewinner?" At the time, I bristled and waxed poetic about the virtues of rusticity. Claudette stood firm. I rolled. Now, older and wiser, I get it. That apple bar may have bested all the kin in its class, but it's so homely. The journey ends here.
As favorites fall away, blocs form. One camp favors a sparkling sugar cookie. Another digs in for a delicate almond crisp. The Mojito Bar, we all agree, is a gem, with a tender crust, lime zip and faint minty finish. The flavor evolves. The concept is mod. Do we have a winner? Someone pipes up: "It looks funny."
We are at an impasse. After 590 entries, slashed to 65 best, winnowed to a handful of very good cookies, the choice is undeniably subjective. Everyone looks at me, the sponsor. I've learned the rules, and I have earned my voice. No one will silence me this year. My pick will be final. But I don't want to choose! These women have more experience, and this isn't about Midwest Living anyway. It's about the fair, a fabulous slice of Americana that brings a million people together every year for butter cows and giant steers, tractor pulls and turkey legs. It's about friendships forged over flour and brown sugar. It's about family-legacies made and loved ones lost. Everyone waits. I take a breath and talk it out. We can't have three bars win; we need to represent the breadth of cookie-baking. Novelty matters, but tradition does too. Our winner's circle needs both. I scan the table and grab three plates. It's over.
We step out, the crowd hushes, and I flip on the mic. Third place goes to Marianne Carlson, for her Chocolate Coconut Squares flavored with marmalade. I remember Marianne from my cub year, when she took the grand prize for the contest's first-ever French macaron. This year, I say, her glossy ganache blew me away.
Judy, who handwrites her recipes and lost her mom and baking companion before the fair, takes red for her Lemon Sugar Cookies. "I almost left," she says. "I didn't think I had a chance because I don't do all those fancy things." My heart swells.
The Mojito Bar wins. The crowd saw this coming. Jacob Van Patten is a recent college grad, with a shy smile and mop of brown hair. He's not only of a different gender than most of the entrants, but a different generation too. He learned to bake with his grandma Sandy and his mom-Kim earned a few ribbons this year as well-but his cookies are refreshingly modern. (That rye number? Classic Jacob.) He has a curiosity about ingredients and an eye for glam. And he's committed. He only slept four hours in the last two days, he says. Kim beams. A lot of people in this building have watched Jacob grow up, I realize, and in their applause, they acknowledge a changing of the guard. But no one's folding. They'll all be back.
I step out of the Elwell into the warm sun-into the Iowa State Fair. I smell woodsmoke, fry oil and manure. Music blares from a Navy recruiting stand. People amble by with cotton candy and lemonade. All over the fairgrounds, under every roof, other people with different obsessions are deep in their tasks, shearing sheep, judging gladiolas, parading quilts, tossing horseshoes and primping their many braids. I unpin my badge. It's my turn to gawk.
Get the recipes
Find the recipes for the prizewinning cookies at the links below.