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Looks count. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Especially when you’re up against the hundreds of other entries in the North Carolina State Fair’s Food Preservation competition. It’s not all about taste, but whether you’d want to even pick up the jar in the first place, let alone scoop some on your plate.

And competition it is, with nominal monetary prizes going to 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place category winners + a $25 winner-take-all Best of Show designation for class winners. But perhaps more important, are the bragging rights. I know for a fact that our family still remembers the story about my mom’s 1957 Iowa State Fair first-place prize-winning bread, and to prove it we have the faded yellow newspaper clipping with her grinning ear to ear as she leans over two loaves of bread. She had reason to smile; back then it was worth $80, plus 100 pounds of Robin Hood flour and a year’s supply of Fleischmann’s yeast. Not a bad day’s work.

Even with this background of State Fair success I resisted at first when Dr. Benjamin Chapman (@benjaminchapman), associate professor and food safety specialist in the NC State’s department of Youth, Family and Community Sciences, emailed me about being a judge for the contest. I’m not a food expert by any definition. But then again I am a foodie and appreciate great flavors and presentation, and can follow rules when I have to. Bingo, I’m qualified. I happily agreed to dive into the dried foods, and preserves, and quickly learned that while they might be a close cousin, preserves are NOT jam. Preserves look more like the fruit they started out as, with a “syrup” with the consistency of honey or soft jelly mixed in at just the right proportions.

While a prize-winning entry might be worth less cash nowadays than in 1957, the rewards are great for the home cooks putting up their own food. Done well, it ensures the food on the table is fabulous, without all the extra ingredients you can’t pronounce. Done poorly, it can kill you. Literally. Chapman should know. He writes the wildly popular barfblog.com — “safe food from farm to fork” — with a colleague, offering evidence-based opinions on current food safety issues, and more than a few of the stories are sobering.

“This is one area where you don’t want to be Rachael Ray,” Chapman said. “You don’t want to add flair to recipes and techniques backed by good science and rigorous testing. A couple of years ago botulinum toxin-linked illness was linked to home canned watermelon jelly sold as a fundraiser. A death and four illnesses, resulting in paralysis and months of recovery, was connected to improperly processed green beans in Washington and Ohio a few years ago. With home food preservation of low acid foods like veggies and meats, the consequences of not following evidence-based practices are catastrophic. It’s not just a bit of diarrhea or vomit; paralysis, leading to long-term health problems or death, are the norm, not the exception.”

I’m glad I read this after I tasted all the entries. I felt safe though. Luckily I was partnered with Matt Shipman, a patient veteran judge, and he explained how to first look for less than 1/4 inch of space above the jar’s contents to ensure proper processing before we popped open the lids. Chapman’s team checks the processing times and had also tested 70 of the low acid entries for correct pH levels, knocking three products out of the competition for not having high enough acidity.

According to Chapman, in his fifth year of managing the food preservation category, home preservation is a trend as much on the rise in North Carolina as it is in the rest of the country. The 1,424 State Fair food preservation entries this year dwarfed last year’s 952 products. It certainly kept our runner Edna Talley busy; it was a full-time job keeping us organized with the next round of products and restocking the fridges behind us, glowing with all the oranges, deep reds and yellows.

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I’m wondering if some of that enthusiasm is a spillover from local food celebrity Andrea Weigl; a writer for the News & Observer, her book Pickles & Preserves: A Savor The South Cookbook published this spring. According to UNC Press, the book “highlights the regional flair that southern cooks bestow on this traditional art of survival in preserving the South’s bountiful harvest. The fifty classic and inventive recipes — from Dilly Beans and Pickled Okra to Muscadine Jam and Habañero Gold Pepper Jelly — will have beginners and veterans alike rolling up their sleeves.” When I asked about any exotic fair entries this year, Chapman mentioned a unique beet relish he didn’t remember from years past.

That all sounds delicious, but Shipman and I didn’t get to taste any of those recipes since most of our categories were tried-and-true single-ingredient entries — like strawberry preserves, probably our toughest one to rank with so many tasty entries. With one main ingredient I discovered it’s not easy to get the right balance between “all you taste is sugar” and the fresh flavor of fruit shining through. It’s a fine line and quite a few missed that mark in each category. For the record, sweeter does not equal better.

Shipman and I were pretty amazingly in agreement on just about every entry, and were very impressed with our candidates for Best of Show:

-tart dried apples, thin rings beautifully stacked with red skins still intact
-amazingly whole dried bay leaves, artfully arranged in the bottle
-cherry preserves that made me want to find some toast and forget the rest of the event
-dried pears that smelled exactly like dried pears should smell
-our absolute favorite, winning Best of Show: Scowling Scorpion peppered beef jerky

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Jerky was a tough category, with a triple-smoked entry coming in a close second, topped only by the winning jerky’s incredibly layered flavors. It started out sweet, with a hint of teriyaki, and then just like the name suggested, hit you with a zippy hot sting on the back side. Kazow. And yum, I want more; if the winner is reading this, you need to market it — and consider me your first sale. I’m pretty sure Shipman would be second in line.

That same advice goes to whomever entered the Best of Show lemon butter, winner of the jams, conserves, marmalades and butters category. I’ve never had anything like it: velvety smooth and rich, with a lemon flavor that was so fresh it was unreal. It took every ounce of moral integrity I had not to stuff the winning jar in my purse and make a run for it.

Home preservation, part of the NC State Fair since 1853, is definitely a tradition worth preserving. Congrats to all the winners. Let’s eat!

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