Winning a Blue Ribbon at the Deerfield Fair

How I won a blue ribbon and how YOU can too. (Hint: Careful with the baking soda.)

Author Mike Morin with his prize-winning chocolate chip cookies.
Photo by Melissa Boulanger

Wednesday, August 7, 2013. Meet with editor. Assignment: “Win a blue ribbon at the Deerfield Fair and write a story about it for next year’s fair issue.” Gulp. No pressure.

You’re telling a kid who grew up in a big city, Detroit, to take on the lifelong residents of rural New Hampshire and pull a blue ribbon out of my, uh, my hat?

With that daunting challenge, the clock is set to 50 days. Seven weeks to a ribbon or just a fun story to tell. Maybe both. After all, the Deerfield Fair, in its 138th year, is all about family fun, farm and food. For more than a century, rural and city folks alike brought home-baked pies, hand-fed poultry and behemoth pumpkins that boggle the mind. I set out to prove that, if I can enter a fair contest, anyone can. Decision made. I will bake the chocolate-chocolate chip cookies my family likes. Words like, “love them,” “addictive” and “brownie-ish” are used by fans of my Chocolate Infiniti recipe. Then again, they’re family. They’re supposed to say those things.

Labor Day, September 2. Exploratory road trip to the Hopkinton State Fair. Armed with a notepad and hidden camera, I begin my research. I have never looked at the household exhibits at a fair before, including the Michigan State Fair, Topsfield, Hopkinton and Deerfield. Do I put the six cookies on a bed of greens? I see that paper plates are used. This is a fair after all. No Pfaltzgraff serving ware, please. Deerfield wants six cookies in a clear plastic bag. I like that.

Wednesday, September 4. Speak with Carol Tordoff, superintendent of Department P, Household. Despite revealing I am entering in her department, I am given the OK to watch the judging process. No one will know I have an entry. Will I be crushed if they try mine while I’m there and they hate it? Must wear my reporter’s face, just in case.

Thursday, September 5. Experiment begins. Bake cookies and eat them after two days as there will be a 48-hour gap from drop-off to sampling by judges.

Friday, September 20. Clock shows four days to submission. Insecurity sets in. I begin experimenting with a decorative topping of coarse-ground white salt and then a finer grain pink Andean sea salt to offer an offsetting profile to the very sweet double chocolate base. I learned this watching the Food Network. Thankfully, family members play the honesty card and suggest I bake the tried-and-true version sans salt. By now, I’m becoming a wreck and comply with their opinions. After all, a four dollar prize accompanies the coveted blue ribbon. My editor’s words, “Win a blue, kid. Win a blue,” ping pong through my brain.

Tuesday, September 24. Bake cookies that morning for an afternoon drop off. Take extra care to assure roundness uniformity since appearance counts in judging. They look better than usual. Package the best-looking six on to a small paper plate and squeeze into a baggie. Enclose recipe as directed by rules.

Thursday, September 26. Judging Day. I arrive at 2 p.m. to witness the process, hoping my trench coat and fedora don’t make me stand out as a spy. Judging commences. I decide not to torture myself by watching the judging and instead enjoy the fair and talk to fellow contestants.

Author Mike Morin interviews Louise Clifford, who he dubbed “Queen of the Deefield Fair.”
Photo by Melissa Boulanger

I meet Louise Clifford of West Canaan, who I imagine must be the queen of Deerfield Fair exhibitors. Superintendent Tordoff tells me, “I’d estimate [Louise wins] 35 to 40 ribbons a year just in the Household Department.” Multiply that by almost four decades at Deerfield and one can imagine what her house must look like if everything is on display.

“This year I entered 32 in the canning department as well as flowers and vegetable exhibits,” she confesses. Only 32? Jeez, Louise! “I didn’t start as early this year because when I can, it’s on a wood stove and I have to wait until it’s a little cooler weather. We’ve always had a wood stove; in fact we have three wood stoves at the farm, so I like to can on the wood stove.” For the Clifford family, coming to Deerfield is an annual pilgrimage. She’s been coming for 39 years. Showing at fairs began with her Nana Leach.

“She took a lot of pride in receiving a blue ribbon,” says Clifford. And her dad also took pride in participating. “My dad exhibited vegetables at Canaan and Rutland Fairs. We have a 71-acre farm. We harvest hay, timber, maple syrup, vegetables and flowers for bouquets.” Son Jeff Clifford doesn’t know life any other way. “I’ve been coming to this fair since I could walk, probably. Now we just bring her down so she can do what she enjoys doing,” he says.

“We love to farm and we were very lucky to save my parents’ farm. They bought it in 1936,” says Clifford, who hands me a jar of home-canned blackberry jam. I plan to ration it for about eight months because it is so good. Award-winning good.

Mike’s souvenirs include a blue ribbon and a suitable- for-framing $4 check.

While chatting up another baker, Marise Evans, I discover that the Deerfield Fair has kept up with the times. This year, bakers can enter gluten-free goods in two categories: muffins and cookies. The Deerfield product designer has a reason to be happy about that. “I found out a year ago that I have celiac disease. I’d always been the baker in the family and then all of a sudden last year it was like, whoa, wait a second. You’re not allowed to eat anything you’ve been baking for the last, like, 30 years. I sort of felt this was a new beginning for learning how to bake and to really make things delicious but I enjoy eating without depriving myself,” says Evans.

Former Epping resident Annie McNabb of Adirondack, NY, has a 15-year reputation riding on many blue ribbons for her chocolate chip cookies. For 2013, she leaves with a disappointing third place ribbon. “I use a certain baking soda all these years and they stopped actually carrying it one place, so I switched to a different brand and that brand that I got is extremely powerful. The judges picked right up on it and then, when I read the package of the baking soda, it tells you right on there, use about half the amount.” Oops. McNabb is philosophical about the learning moment. “It’s not like they said it was awful. It was one of those things,” she adds.

With judging completed, I circle back, pretending to be disinterested. I breeze past the beets exhibit just in time to be greeted by Tordoff, who delivered the verdict. “You won a blue ribbon. Congratulations!”

“Really?” I give a fist pump and wonder how many years it will take to catch up with Louise. Maybe I’ve got a shot if I’m careful with my baking soda management.

Winning Over the Judges

Judging baked goods at the Deerfield Fair takes a discerning palate and a high tolerance for sweets. Not to mention the occasional evil eye from a contestant. Then there’s the money. In 2012, total payout for Household Department was $1,627.50 in $4, $3 and $2 prize amounts.

Michelle Bauer, assistant superintendent, explains that the Danish (no relation to the breakfast pastry) judging system is used. Each entry is evaluated on its own merit and not in relation to anyone else’s entry. So, there could be any number of first, second or third place ribbons awarded. On this particular day, a panel of four judges shared their thoughts on picking the best and gently critiquing the rest.

CHRISTINE STEMAN — Kansas City, Mo., left Deerfield 13 years ago. Has never missed at Deerfield Fair yet, going back to childhood, where she entered as a child. Her mom still has her ribbons at home.

What do judges look for? You want good taste, texture, equal balance of flavors, and you want it to taste good and melt in your mouth. You want to go back for more. For me, I have in my mind what an ideal cookie should taste like.

Do contestants spy on you while judging? Actually, we had somebody walking up when we were grabbing their biscotti so we waited until they went by. It’s one of those things you kind of keep an eye out for.

JESSE LAMONTAGNE — Concord. Works at Michele’s Sweet Shoppe.

What do judges look for?: Texture and color are the first things you notice with your eyes. So presentation makes a big difference, but you can be fooled by presentation sometimes. After that, it’s all about the texture in your mouth. Everybody has a base [reference point] of that from their mom’s baking and their grandmother’s.

LISA LOMBARDI — Stratham. Culinary background. Has owned restaurants. Works at Abenaqui Country Club.

Do you advise contestants on how to do better?:  If it’s banana bread, for example, you’re looking at their ingredients ratio of their flour, baking soda, butter. Some people are cooking with oil. You want to use a little less oil. If it seems like there’s a little too much oil or there’s too much flour or the baking soda is not mixed through, it’s nice to give them pointers.

CAMERON GLINES — Epping. 15 years old.

How do you judge gluten-free baking? My mom owns a bakery and I help her out a lot so I have a good taste for it. She mostly makes gluten-free things because she’s allergic to gluten. It’s a completely different challenge cooking without gluten, and more and more we are seeing people who are discovering their allergies to it. I have a lot of siblings who are jealous because I got to do this.

Kati Baker has been riding and competing in shows for 30 years. This year will be her third time at the Deerfield Fair. Courtesy photo

Winning the Horse Show

Ride for Your Life(style)

At 32, Kati Baker has been riding horses and competing in shows for 30 years. This will be her third time at Deerfield and, despite her decades of experience, she still deals with pre-show nerves.

“The the night before and day of, my stomach starts to turn. Once I get past that first class, the nerves go away and the fun comes back,” says Baker.

The rider may get nervous, but does the horse feel jitters too? “The horse is distracted and you put it in a ring with hundreds of (in its mind) predators (the audience). Even though show horses are desensitized, they still have natural instincts and intuitions and can get spooked. And there are lights and noises. So keeping them focused makes me feel accomplished. It’s about keeping you and your horse as a team amid chaos,” she adds.

Baker and other riders make it look easy. Creating a trusting bond with your animal is a big part of a successful showing. It’s a big commitment, says Baker. “It takes time and patience and hard work plus dedication. [For me] it’s not a hobby. It’s a lifestyle. I want to do it all and not just ride a horse trained by someone else.”

The winner of more than a thousand ribbons and 40 to 50 trophies, Baker is a horsemanship instructor and trainer at Halona Stables, just a few miles from the Deerfield fairgrounds. She teaches young riders techniques for pleasure or competitions. Responsibility and self-awareness are keystones to Baker’s lessons.

“You’re around a 1,000-pound animal. It’s about how you talk and carry your confidence. The younger you start, the better. I do unmounted sessions and work with body self-awareness. If you pick yourself up with pride, your horse will do anything. A horse is a mirror to your soul. They go beyond what’s skin deep.”

Winning the Demolition Derby

Learn to Smash Like “Crash”

Before or after? Sometimes it’s hard to tell at the demolition derby.
Courtesy photo

With the nickname “Crash 603,” you know Steve Bucknam Jr. doesn’t drive to fairs to show flower arrangements. A former Deerfield Fair demolition driver, Bucknam knows why the Sunday night derby draws overflow crowds.

“People like to see things crash. They like havoc.” For a $25 entry fee and a car similar to what you drove in college, you can take out your frustrations by trashing someone else’s car and not get arrested for it.

Deerfield Derby Producer Delbert Rudolph of R & R Productions believes Deerfield Fair fans like the local appeal of this derby. “It’s mostly local individuals that participate from within 50 miles. Each driver brings in relatives and friends who come to see them. And people like to see people total cars and smash ‘em up,” he laughs. Rock ‘em-wreck ‘em shows have been popular for 40 or 50 years, Rudolph says. “Some say it started because Chitwood Thrill Shows wanted to add something new since they never changed. You might go to one as a 10 year old then again as an adult and nothing had changed.”

There are a few rules to know. Electric fuel pumps are out. Also, no antifreeze, welding or Chrysler Imperials are allowed. What? The best boat Detroit ever cranked out? Why not? “They have truck frames,” Bucknam says. No surprise there. More things you should know: You must hit somebody at least every 60 seconds and, according to rule #7, “Do not play possum.” You have been warned.

Here’s a definite “after,” one of Crash Bucknam’s trophy cars.
Courtesy photo

Even though Bucknam claims running in demo derbies is becoming a rich man’s sport, he entered a big cash derby in Brockton, Mass., in July for under $500. “My car cost $300, with $100 more into it plus $50 entry fee. Years ago people used to pay us to take their cars off their hands.”

The 56-year-old retired salvage yard worker admits, “I do dumb things. I’m more of a crowd-pleaser. Once I put 22 horns on my car. I’ve taken water balloons and squirt guns to shoot the drivers. I’ll shout to the crowd, ‘How am I doing?’” And how did Bucknam come to be known as Crash?

“I got called Crash in Brockton. I would start when the 10-second countdown clock got to five and try to hit somebody right away,” he laughs. Sounds like he might be on a first-name basis with the Good Hands people.

A Know-how for Cows

Thirteen-year-old Brandon Wolinski with his prize winning cow Sarah at Deerfield Fair 2013
Photo by bethany silver

Most 13 year olds have no idea what they want to be when they grow up. Then again, Webster’s Brandon Wolinski isn’t like most teenagers. Even as a little kid, he knew he would follow in his grandfather’s footsteps when he’d visit the dairy farm Robert “Stubby” Dolloff ran until eventually selling it.

“He was my inspiration to be a dairy farmer,” Wolinski says. About 150 show ribbons later, the 8th grader from Merrimack Valley Middle School hopes to score again this year at Deerfield. Wolinski has won mostly red and blue ribbons.

“I’ve also won the Oakhurst Dairy Award two times at the Stratham Fair. Plus some bigger ribbons like Grand Champion, Junior Champion and Supreme Champion at Deerfield last year. All categories of cows were involved,” he says. Wolinski doesn’t always win and understands that’s all a part of learning more about showing his Jersey dairy cows. There’s no crying in cattle showing.

“It’s awesome to win but if you don’t win the judges will tell you what you should have done better. You live and you learn.” Wolinski seems wise beyond his 13 years and willing to work hard, though he doesn’t look at it as being difficult.

“It’s not hard except getting ready to show,” he says. “You have to lead it [the cow] every day and wash it. And make it like you so you have a good relationship. You have to love what you do and be committed to it. I like it so it’s not hard for me.” And how do you create bovine bonding? “You have to treat the animal with respect and love it. You control your animal and clean it. You have to like it [so it will] bond with you. Show it affection and care, ‘cause when it gets older it’s easier to train.”

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Prentice

Wait. They Judge SCHOOL WORK? (No Fair!)

The Deerfield Fair’s claim as New England’s oldest family fair rings true with an extensive display of school work entered by kids from all corners of New Hampshire. Areas of display include science, fine arts, calligraphy, wood, math, creative writing, weaving and many other disciplines and crafts. To level the playing field, elementary group exhibits are judged separately from the junior/senior high school field. Students who win a top three ribbon also receive cash prizes of $5, $3 or $2.

Jennifer Prentice is a third-year superintendent for the fair’s School Work department. She’s a stay-at-home mom who has spent years also volunteering at Deerfield Community School.

What were some memorable exhibits last year? Last year a girl crocheted a diorama of life under the sea. It won a blue ribbon. Also, since photography was introduced, it’s become very popular. Last year, Bedford High School put up a huge photography display. They used QR codes to help provide added information about their pieces. (You hold up a smartphone to the display’s QR code to read the info by student.)

Do students get into the competition? For me, this is the best part of being there. You’ll hear a kid squeal, “Look. This one is mine!” To them, the color of a ribbon doesn’t matter. Hearing proud parents talk makes me tear up at times. Last year, Senator Kelly Ayotte came through and enjoyed the kids’ work. The kids were enthused that a celebrity admired their work.

Who can enter? All kids, including those who are home-schooled as well as public and private schools are invited. Home-schooled entries are judged in their own category. We are always looking for more schools to enter. To qualify, their work must come from last school year’s projects.


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