Inside a 100-year-old brick building tucked between the Cattle Barn and the Poultry & Rabbit exhibits, within hurling distance of the glittering Midway and the thick, buttery air that hangs over the boulevard of deep-fried concessions—here, 185 home cooks participating in the Indiana State Fair’s Culinary Arts competition are working the room like rock stars.
They paid their $30–$50 entry fees, filled in recipe templates listing prep time and precise measurements (the noncommittal “pinch” and “dash” having been outlawed a few years back), and delivered their haul by the hatchback-full, each item balanced on the required sturdy white disposable plate or foil-covered cardboard round.
Now, it’s time to bask in the sweet limelight. For these two sweltering weeks in August, their pies, cakes, cookies, brownies, yeast rolls, quick breads, jams, preserves, and candies crowd the air-conditioned Indiana Arts Building, encased in vintage glass cabinets or bagged and tagged like forensic evidence on long tables. Some of them sport first-, second-, and third-place ribbons, or the coveted purple satin Best of Show rosette like the one that—if I may be so bold—I dream of hanging on my own refrigerator door some day.
Not that it will be easy.
That is mainly because a good number of the pies—between 18 and 23 in a typical year—wear Barbara Headlee’s signature lattice top, uniformly scalloped with her trusty red-handled Cake Boss pastry cutter.
A county over and a month earlier, the North Salem school-bus driver was meticulously weaving crusts by the dozen and stacking them between sheets of wax paper in her freezer. For each of the dozen or so cakes that bear her imprint, she has sifted Softasilk cake flour into a big Tupperware bowl four times, until the particles are nearly weightless, then added the remaining dry ingredients and sifted four times again. She buys the sticky-sweet star of her honey cakes directly from a bee farm in Martinsville, keeps a doomsday supply of pricey Watkins vanilla and Marion-Kay spices in a set of deep cupboards, and swears by the powers of Perma-Flo, the powdery white thickening agent that she gets by the bagful from an Amish supplier.
Over the 42 years that Headlee has participated in the Fair’s Culinary Arts throwdown, she has learned that you cannot skimp on the quality of your ingredients, that the judges have a weakness for butter and cranberries, and that she can transport all of her entries in the back of a Mitsubishi van, as long as the seats are folded down. “I guess I’m a little crazy,” she says, leaning into this contagious, full-body laugh that is as legendary on the State Fair cooking circuit as her formidable baking skills—which did not come naturally, by the way. Her husband, Gene, says he could have bounced the first cake she made for him, which sends Headlee into another spasm of laughter. But over the years, she developed a winning touch at the Hoosier Sugar Olympics, usually returning to her rural Hendricks County home with a bundle of ribbons and cash prizes. She uses a lot of old family recipes, perfecting her technique year after year, transforming her modest country kitchen into an assembly line during the peak baking weeks. She doesn’t have time to experiment with practice pies. “I make it to take it,” she says, not laughing.
Just the sight of Barbara Headlee’s black Sunbeam stand mixer on the counter next to a two-liter of caffeine-free Pepsi triggers something deep in my lizard brain: memories of a specific harvest-gold Tupperware canister compacted with brown sugar and a basket filled with wooden rolling pins polished with age. I remembered the stacks of cookbooks—not fancy ones but The Cake Mix Doctor, Beverly Nye’s A Family Raised on Rainbows, and a laminated compilation of family recipes that includes Joyce Spalding’s simple formula for Oreo Cake (Whip Cream Cake): Break Oreos in half and layer cookies and Dream Whip. Frost with Dream Whip. Try to keep your family out of it so it can set at least eight hours.
Cooking was my mom’s love language, her superpower and obsession in the time before Instagram. Oh, what she would have done with a Pinterest board. I thought about her as I filled out my rookie-year entry form for the 2019 State Fair, how she loved to collect and try out recipes, how I would come home to a house warm with baking smells and her bent over a cookbook on the counter.
I’m not the only baking-inclined punk who stalks patisseries on social media and ties her apron strings a little tighter every time Paul Hollywood says “soggy bottom” on an episode of The Great British Baking Show. I’m a fool for the comfort of buttercream icing and the therapeutic virtues of cookie dough, a master at procrastination by way of banana bread. If you belong to my book club, I want to make you vegan pop tarts. If you’re my Valentine, I want to fill a hollow chocolate ball with ice cream and pour molten salted caramel over the top, even if it wrecks my kitchen and I’m not very good at it. It’s embedded in my DNA.
Cooking was my mom’s love language, her superpower and obsession in the time before Instagram. Oh, what she would have done with a Pinterest board.
My mom would always ask visitors if they had eaten yet, and even if they had she would carve them off a slab of zucchini bread. She cooked sit-down dinners every night, complete with a dessert course—often a little pinch-crusted pie with a sliver removed for quality control. She whipped up applesauce cakes, spice cakes, and something called Jell-O Poke Cake that involved a packet of red gelatin and the handle end of a wooden spoon. Give her a can of cling peaches, and we would have cobbler. Her version of that ’80s pitch-in standard, Better than Robert Redford—basically a pudding lasagna with buttery crushed walnuts and Cool Whip, fortified with sugar and cream cheese—dominated the dessert table.
During her brief career as an elementary school cafeteria worker, she wore the smock and hairnet, but her colleagues asked her not to handle the butter because her hands were too hot. Instead, she double-fisted the serving spoons as the compartmented trays scooted along the cafeteria line, scooping buttered peas with one hand and strawberry shortcake topping with the other. One day, a student asked her to skip the berries, and she automatically ladled peas over his shortcake instead. I’m not saying she could carry her own Food Network show, but my mom was really good at feeding people, and somehow we have made it through an entire year without seeing her at the kitchen counter, asking us if we have eaten yet.
Mom passed away last summer. So if you want to understand why I suddenly have this fascination with the State Fair’s blue-ribbon Dream Team—well, maybe you can begin your thesis there.
Newbies stick out like store-bought pie crust among the State Fair heavy hitters. And by newbie, I mean anyone who has thrown their oven mitt into the ring within the last decade—people like Lorrie Wilson, who used to be the kind of fairgoer who hung out in the Indiana Arts Building like a groupie, counting ribbons and just learning the names of the major players. Then, in 2017, she entered one of the year’s biggest showstoppers: her 26-pound “Piecaken.” The dessert world’s answer to the Thanksgiving in-joke, the Turducken, towered 18 inches over the table, an icing-covered stack of three different pies baked into three different cakes (apple pie inside a yellow cake, pumpkin pie inside a spice cake, and pecan pie inside a chocolate cake) and topped with pecans and caramel. She won a blue ribbon. “That was the one that kind of opened the door for me,” says Wilson, who has since moved on to mile-high apple pies.
Just checking out my competition.
John Roselle, director of marketing for a Muncie tree-trimming business and his family’s designated apple-pie supplier, entered the State Fair game a few years ago, starting with just a handful of fruit confections but eventually expanding his pie repertoire to include not only the traditional apple version, but also Dutch apple, apple-walnut, blueberry, cherry, raspberry, peach, and strawberry. Roselle grew up with a backyard carved out of an old apple orchard, where about a dozen trees still bore fruit. One night when he was 13 with nothing to do, he made his first apple pie from scratch. Today, he lives in a home equipped with two ovens, all the better for achieving his career goal of Hoosier pie domination. “I would say that I am pretty competitive,” Roselle says. And yet, he rolled into 2019 still chasing his first blue ribbon. What advice does he have for someone new to cutthroat pie-making? “Put a little extra effort into the detail and aesthetics of your crust,” he says.
Robin Willis, a nine-year ribbon magnet who generally leaves the fairgrounds with armloads of awards, offers a more specific pearl of wisdom: “Don’t try to bake three pies at once or you will catch your oven on fire.” She speaks from experience. The first year she entered the pie class, the juices cooked over the side of the pans and onto the heating coils. “You learn something new every year,” she says. Willis sweeps the jams, jellies, and sauces categories these days, with last year’s bounty including blue ribbons in hard candies, lollipops, and banana bread. “I tend to stay away from the pies,” she says.
Kenda Friend’s teenage son and daughter have joined her in the quest for State Fair fame. Each family member boasts a flourishing wall of ribbons. The 25-year veteran of the cooking competition who recently retired from Dow AgroSciences refers to a spreadsheet that tracks her progress on the 16 categories she entered this year—lots of yeast rolls and cookies, but no cakes. “We’re not really cake people,” she says.
Rebecca Burgardt didn’t think she was cake people, either. Then, a few years ago, she won Best of Show in the Ghirardelli Chocolate Championship with her triple-chocolate almond coconut cheesecake that her husband called Killer Cheesecake. “Because it was to die for,” says Burgardt. And then there is HaeWon Miller of Greenwood, whose layered cakes (among them a Magnificent Maple Cake, Mocha Pecan Torte, and Blackberry Almond Cream Reverie) have brought her major State Fair cred. Meanwhile, the Schuman sisters, Mary and Nancy, dominate the quick-bread, cakes, and cookies categories.
But the name on everyone’s lips is Mary Alice Collins, who has achieved legendary status over the course of her 60 consecutive years of competition. Sixty years. Once the flour settles on the 2019 baking session, the 80-year-old former home-ec teacher will retire her mixing bowls, having hit her longtime anniversary goal, which is a marvel in itself but even more mind-blowing considering the obstacles she overcame to get here. In 2015, she suffered a sudden septic infection related to a kidney stone that resulted in the amputation of both her legs below the knees and all ten of her fingers. She learned to maneuver the kitchen with prosthetic legs and what remained of her hands, and entered her usual suite of pies and cakes the following year. As she has done every year since, with the help of her husband, Darl, even in the face of a diagnosis of ovarian cancer the following year. In 2018, she took home first-place ribbons for oatmeal pies, pineapple pies, and both white and coconut multiple-layer cakes. She and Darl plan to finish strong this year, signed up for a commemorative 60-plus categories.
The rules state that all pies must arrive in 8- or 9-inch disposable pans and that “judges shall not award prizes to unworthy exhibits, whether there be competition or not.” Ouch. Participants are instructed to punch a hole in the corner of their plate and attach the barcoded identification tag with a twist tie. “No Scotch tape.” In the case of candies, cookies, muffins, and scones, six items identical in size, shape, and color constitute a complete exhibit. Cookies should not be warm. Brownies and bar cookies should all be center pieces. No cream cheese, whipped cream, or sour cream frosting is allowed, with the exception of Hoosier sugar cream, lemon meringue, and coconut cream, which must arrive from the home refrigerator in an ice-packed cooler to maintain a 40-degree temperature.
Culinary Arts division coordinator Brenda Nortrup keeps a close watch on the integrity of the competition, but she has an excited hush in her voice when she goes down one of her pedantic rabbit holes. “If you don’t show me your crust recipe, I won’t taste it,” she says.
The current list of categories begins with a food-preservation section that encompasses jams, jellies, preserves, pickles, relishes, sauces, and dips. Six variations of brownies, 14 types of candies, and 20 varieties of cookies have their own groupings. All manner of yeast breads (including the bread-machine variety) get representation, as well as honey breads and quick breads. The entry book lists a full page of subgroups under angel food cakes, single-layer cakes, multiple-layer cakes, honey cakes, cupcakes, and cheesecakes. There are even categories for desserts created with a store-bought mix, the only stipulation being that at least two rogue ingredients go into the recipe.
There should be more real-life categories, like midnight cookies, breakup brownies, and co-worker cakes that can sit out all day in the conference room.
Pies break down into 22 subspecies, everything from blueberry to rhubarb to fudge. Sometimes a category will go stale and get replaced; this year, lemon meringue replaced mincemeat. A category for ugly cakes recently appeared in the lineup. “Last year, somebody made a cow pie,” Nortrup says. “And it was very detailed.” The class description states that “unattractive style and lack of technique is a plus.” Nortrup recommends this category for anyone who dropped a cake, which sounds both sad and relatable.
In fact, there should be more real-life categories, like midnight cookies, breakup brownies, and co-worker cakes that can sit out all day in the conference room. How about a section of recipes culled from handwritten index cards that flutter out of Mary Higgins Clark books as you pack up your mom’s things; Country Living clippings stuck to the bottom of junk drawers; an Eagle Brand condensed milk recipe label stowed deep inside a Longaberger basket; and stacks of random church-group cookbooks neatly dog-eared in all of the best spots? “What am I going to do with all of this stuff?” my dad says, swooping his arm toward the spice rack, china cabinet, cookbooks, cake stands—the only things left of my mom’s kitchen. “What am I going to do with all of this stuff?” he says over and over. But I know it’s because he feels empty, too. We find our own ways to fill the void.
As for my State Fair dreams, I’ve scouted a few of my 184 opponents. I’m out of my league. But I know how hard my mom would have worked at this, so in her honor, I’ll clip some recipes, bang some cookie sheets, try not to catch my oven on fire, and hopefully come up with something that is, if not perfect, at least better than Robert Redford.