If you grew up in the country, then you know someone who claims to have the best pickles or peach preserves. Recently, canning hasn’t been limited to those with Victory Gardens. Canning has become trendy. Competition for a blue ribbon at the NC State Fair Preserved Foods is increasing and, with a whopping $10 cash prize, it’s all about bragging rights.
For many years I, along with a team of others, have judged canned foods at the NC State Fair. A food taster is a coveted job, but it comes with risk. In the past eight years, 30 percent of botulism cases in the U.S. were caused by improperly canned home goods, according to the Center for Disease Control. That’s one reason why there are rules. One of the quickest ways to be disqualified from competition is by not following the processing times and methods found in the three books of standards. When a set of judges is looking at 40 jars of dill pickles, inadequate processing is a great way to narrow the field of candidates.
Recently, recipe submission was mandated. This rule caused quite a stir among home canners. Many take their recipes to the grave! There were even some threats of physical harm to our organizers. Nothing came of it, but don’t doubt the allure of a blue ribbon. This is serious business!
In the end, it comes down to appearance, flavor and texture. Following a set of rules can be complicated, but to make a dill pickle that stands out from the rest takes an understanding of the interplay of ingredients, the variability of the harvest and a sense of elegant flavor balance. Anticipation builds, the jars start appearing out of the glass front cabinets, emerging from the fluorescent glow, and placed before the judges. With plates and spoons at ready, samples are portioned out and tasted. In the most popular categories, there are 40 plus jars to taste. Think about that, 40 pickles or salsas to taste in 30 minutes and then on to the next category. Judges taste on average more than 200 different jars of acidic beauties. Some judges do spit out all that they taste in an act of humble self-preservation.
Beauty is not missing from this competition. From dilly green beans, hand selected to be the exact same length as the height of the jar, to a garlic jelly with perfect miniature cubes of garlic suspended in a clear champagne colored jelly, the art of canning is still alive. But there are some doozies too! Sometimes just the smell emitted as the jar is opened will tell you just as much as tasting. When sampling tomato ketchups one year, the lid was opened and a whiff of charcoal escaped. That ketchup had been burned onto the bottom of the pot and the burnt flakes scraped into the mix. Definitely not blue ribbon material!
The most common offense is use of spices that should have been thrown out in the 1970’s. A musty, ill-defined flavor does not enhance a jar of chutney. Secondarily, imbalanced basic tastes—sour, sweet, salty and bitter—can ruin a good jar of pickled anything. A pickle that tastes overwhelming of vinegar, eliciting a choked cough from a taster, is definitely not ribbon worthy.
Judging preserved foods at the NC State Fair is something I look forward to every year—delights and atrocities to be found. This year when you are wandering the fairgrounds with your turkey leg and funnel cake in hand, be sure to stop by the Commercial and Education building to check out the talents of your fellow crafty North Carolinians.