Taking the Cake

With recipes and stories from 1854 to today, a new book recounts the history of the Iowa State Fair food competitions.

Fairy Cakes, dating from the early 1900s, are a precursor to today’s cupcakes. A light glaze, fresh berries and candied fruit add sweet decoration. Find the recipe below.

Writer: Wini Moranville
Photographer: Duane Tinkey

“If a picture can paint a thousand words, recipes can tell a thousand stories,” says Kay Fenton Smith. It’s a truth she endearingly illustrates throughout her new book, “Baking Blue Ribbons: Stories and Recipes from the Iowa State Fair Food Competitions.” 

A few years ago, Smith, a passionate cook and avid State Fair enthusiast with a professional background in marketing, was surprised that while there are many great books about the Iowa State Fair and cookbooks with State Fair recipes, no one had ever told the history of the fair’s food department and competitions. 

“Here we were, the No. 1 state fair food competition in the nation,” Smith says. “Why wasn’t there a book about it?” 

So she decided to write one. 

For help, she teamed up with Carol McGarvey, who worked for the Des Moines Register for 33 years as a features reporter on the food, gardening and home beats; come each August, she reported on the food competitions at the fair. She also has served as a State Fair food judge for 36 years and counting. 

Together, the duo dug deeply into the archives of the State Fair’s Blue Ribbon Foundation, read through hundreds of pages of Iowa newspapers, and spoke with dozens of judges and ribbon-winners and their descendants to uncover the history, recipes and stories of “Iowa’s greatest treasure in food.” 

The resulting tome brings more than 150 recipes that will get avid cooks rushing to the kitchen. But first they’ll have to tear themselves away from the compelling stories that each recipe tells, not only of the talented prizewinner who crafted it but also of bygone days and of the 168-year history of the competitions themselves. 

It starts with the first fair in 1854, when the event’s largest cheese (400 pounds) was presented to the Honorable J.W. Grimes, Iowa’s governor-elect, and awards were given, by male judges, based on how foods looked (actual tasting didn’t happen until the 1900s). 

Organized by decades and illustrated with vintage photos, newspaper articles and food advertisements, the book’s stories and recipes highlight not only winners from the competitions, but also food trends from each era. In the 1890s Bertha Palmer (of Chicago’s famed Palmer House Hotel), dreamed up a nice little goodie for ladies’ picnics: She had her pastry chef develop a recipe for baking thick chocolaty cookies in a shallow tin and cutting them into squares. Hence, the brownie was born. 

In 1911, Crisco burst onto the scene, and soon after, an ad proclaimed that the “only good reason why a woman should use lard … is because she has not heard of Crisco.” Pistachio pudding was an “it” ingredient of the 1970s, making its way into the trendy Watergate Cake, with its “Coverup” frosting. The 1990s saw “a wave of Cooking Lite and Healthy events with low-sodium and low-fat classes.” 

The authors also recount the ways in which visionary food superintendents brought changes that, over time, transformed the competitions into the seamlessly run juggernaut they are today. 

An overarching takeaway throughout the pages is the pride, dedication and talent of the contestants—and how passionate they were about bringing beautiful food to the fair, in spite of the challenges in their lives. In 1946, for example, when the fair reopened after being shuttered during World War II, contestants saved their butter and sugar rations throughout the year so that they would have enough for the competitions come August. 

Yet for all the rich stories of talented cooks in days gone by, the book is not just a nostalgia trip. The food competitions remain a living, breathing, thriving thing. The 2000s saw Denny and Candy Elwell of Ankeny donating $1 million to expand and remodel the former tourism building into the open, airy and modern Margaret and James “Bud” Elwell Family Food Center. In recent years, the annual number of contestants has grown to more than 10,000, with prize purses topping $75,000. 

“We’ve told of the history, but this book is also about the future,” Smith says. “It’s really about how people continue to cook and bake for all different reasons.” She encourages everyone to enter. “Even if you don’t cook a lot, if you cook something that you’re proud of, there’s room for it at the fair. If you make it to the sign-in table, you’ve already won.” 

Get the book: “Baking Blue Ribbons” will be launched at the Iowa State Fair in August and available for $25 in the Elwell Family Food Center and at Blue Ribbon Foundation booths throughout the fairgrounds. You may also order it online at blueribbonfoundation.org. After the fair, it will be available at various bookstores and locations throughout the metro. 

Fairy Cakes

According to author Kay Fenton Smith, bakeries and grocers in the late 1800s and early 1900s advertised fairy cakes as “a newly discovered jewel of the cuisine” to be served at weddings, afternoon teas and other special occasions. Of course, once these treats got popularized, it was only a matter of time before they snagged their own category in the Iowa State Fair food competitions. 

While the little cakes are clearly ancestors to modern-day cupcakes, these cuties—from an early 1900s recipe—are lighter and fluffier than their modern-day descendants. The secret to this winning texture? Evaporated milk, which Smith says adds moisture without making them heavy or dense. Enjoy these simply on their own or topped with sweetened summer fruits and a dollop of whipped cream. They’re also great split in half, spread with jam, and served with whipped cream—a mini variation on a jelly cake, another wildly popular dessert of that time.

1/2 cup margarine or butter, softened
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, beaten
2/3 cup evaporated milk
1/3 cup water
1/2 teaspoon almond or vanilla extract
2 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
Fresh fruit and/or fruit jellies, for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a muffin pan or line with paper cupcake liners. Cream butter and sugar; add beaten eggs and mix well. In a separate small bowl, mix evaporated milk, water and extract; set aside. Sift flour, baking powder and salt into a separate bowl and add to the butter mixture alternately with the milk mixture, combining after each addition. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until tops are light golden and cupcakes spring back when gently touched. Cool completely. Before serving, drizzle with glaze. Once glaze is dry, garnish with fruit if desired. Makes 12 cupcakes. 

Glaze
1 cup powdered sugar
2–3 tablespoons milk, cream or orange juice
1/2 teaspoon vanilla 

Mix ingredients well, adding liquid gradually until glaze reaches desired consistency. Drizzle over cupcakes.

Adapted from “Baking Blue Ribbons: Stories and Recipes from the Iowa State Food Competitions.”

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