Inside the judging at the State Fair

By Sarah CR Clark

The return of the Minnesota State Fair this summer is being celebrated not just by grandstand ticket holders and fans of deep-fried foods on a stick.

Take Mary Duncomb and Kate Eelkema. They couldn’t be happier they can resume serving as judges for creative activities at the Fair.

Duncomb has been a judge and coordinator of judges for baked product entries at the Fair since 2012. For the 2021 Fair, she is coordinating the work of 20 judges over three days in 93 different baking categories ranging from white bread with no seeds to blueberry muffins and ethnic cakes to gluten-free scones.

“I find it stimulating,” Duncomb said about being a judge. “I get energy from other people as they’re bringing their exhibits in and I appreciate the quality and care people put into their craft.”

Baked products are generally judged on their texture, appearance, color, flavor and aroma. Some categories include decorations and others are considered “special categories’’ and must meet specific requirements.

One of this year’s special categories is sponsored by local business, 3 Cricketeers, and requires the use of either cricket powder or whole roasted crickets in any dessert-like entry.

Duncomb enjoys seeing the diversity of bakers each year.

“That gives me the most joy, when I see everyone participating and enjoying it,” she said. “Both boys and girls, men and women are bringing their exhibits. There are a variety of backgrounds and professions. We see people coming in their suits to drop off their cakes and people who have biked over with their jam, or whatever. We see the whole gamut! And it’s fun.”

Duncomb said she also appreciates the cultural diversity of bakers, noting, for example, that a Hmong baker might use a spice in a way that is new to her.

“But that’s the fun part!” she said. “Our judges need to be very open-minded. They need to be on the cutting edge of what’s going on out in the world. It’s not just about food science, they need to be well-rounded judges.”

Besides being open-minded, judges must also be helpful and kind, explained Eelkema, a quilting judge.

In the quilting competitions and baking contests, the top 25 exhibits earn written evaluations from the judges. These evaluations help contestants understand what they did well and what they could do better to win a ribbon in the future.

Eelkema, of St. Paul, has been a nationally certified judge at the Minnesota State Fair since 2007 and part of the National Association of Certified Quilt Judges since 2015 when it was formed. She has also judged quilts at fairs and shows in North Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, Arizona, North Carolina and Georgia.

Minnesota’s State Fair has 25 separate quilting categories that range from large bed quilts to small “quilts on a stick,” which are 8 inches by 9 inches and displayed on painter’s sticks. This year’s quilt-on-a-stick theme is Minnesota’s honeybees.

When evaluating competing quilts, Eelkema explained she “looks at all the decisions the entrant made to construct the quilt, such as design, colors, fabrics, patterning, the actual quilting stitches, the finishing details and, even, the backing.”

Complexity, cohesiveness and construction all matter to Eelkema when she awards ribbons.

“I always look forward to being part of the judging of the creative activities competitions,” Eelkema said. “There is a great deal of negativity in many areas of the world today.

“But every August I think there is still something very right with the world when I see how many people have taken the time to make quilts and other textiles, wood or glass creations, preserves, baked goods and more to enter into the Minnesota State Fair.” 

Sarah CR Clark lives in St. Anthony Park and is regular freelance writer for the Bugle.

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