Fair Enough 

You'll need a mean meringue to nab the blue ribbon at the Alameda County Fairgrounds.

Yellow "Caution" tape rings the judging area of the Young California Building at the Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton. Within its periphery are five tables draped in bright blue plastic, and at each, a pair of judges for the fair's annual baked-goods competition. Clerks sporting lime and aqua T-shirts bustle between the judging tables and the staging area in back, ferrying entries in categories such as "plain white yeast rolls" and "pumpkin bread."

Every year, the 93-year-old Alameda County Fair holds food contests in hundreds of categories. Some, like the "Beef Is King Cookout," are conducted in public, with panels of chefs, caterers, and local luminaries entertaining the crowds with their comments. But the bulk of the contests are held here, in a massive warehouse filled with multicolored displays of quilts and shelves of jam.

Donna Hahn, a slim, bright-eyed woman with sensibly bobbed white hair, is the coordinator of the fair's Creative Living exhibits. She has managed this process enough times to exude a calm comfort while directing the scores of teenage and middle-aged women who swirl around her. "I think people enter the contests now for the same reason they always have," she says. "People like to share what they make with their neighbors. And it's a pride thing for people who win."

This year's 449 baked-goods entries are being judged in several shifts throughout the course of the fair. Today's judging is the last. On the eve or the morning before, the contestants have dropped off a loaf of bread, say, or seven cookies, along with the recipe.

At the table nearest the boundary, two women past retirement age examine five sets of chocolate brownies. They cut a brownie from each plate into dainty cubes, then sample down the line, meditating on each bite. Many of the judges are past winners, Hahn says, women and men who have won year after year. Others have attended judging school. All are hired -- and paid -- to preside over this contest. Hahn does not allow me to speak to any of them. "I just don't think the fair would like it," she says. So I stand beyond the yellow tape and watch.

I am not alone, though. Several of the contestants have stopped by to view the tasting. They won't find out whether they've won anything until the end of judging, some three hours later, but that doesn't stop them from speculating. Livermore's Ann Meisner and her husband have pulled over a bench, where they snuggle and compare interpretations of the judges' expressions. Meisner has submitted key lime pie this year, and she's waiting to see it emerge from the staging area. It's her third year of participating, and she thinks she might finally have the system down. "Last year, I made the mistake of changing my recipe at the last minute," she says. The previous year, she'd made her snickerdoodles way too big. The judges, she says, aren't necessarily looking for wild bursts of creativity: "They're judging on typical ideas of what each dessert is."

I step over to watch another team of judges, who could belong to the same bridge club as the first. They are inspecting three lemon meringue pies, holding each up to peer at the crust, which is why pies must come in clear glass dishes, not metal ones. Then they do the same with the meringues, murmuring over their sheen. Twenty minutes pass before they even slice in.

The brownie judges finish up their deliberations first and then puzzle over what to write on the comment slips. Before Hahn took over, judges were simply asked to mark a plus, check, or minus under criteria such as "Crust: Texture (flaky, tender)," but she has asked them to add a few comments. "But positive feedback," she insists. "Not 'This was too lumpy.'" She approaches the adult contests much as she does the youth ones, as a learning experience for the contestants.

I am allowed to follow the meringue pies back to the staging area. Surrounded by enough desserts to send an elementary school into a hyperglycemic coma -- the bakery smell is intoxicating -- Hahn is shearing clean slices off the pies and wiping off loose filling so that the goods look their best when they are displayed around the hall. Technically, the adult baking contests award prizes for first ($8), second ($6), and third ($4) place in each category, with a few exemplary entries meriting "judge's favorite" or "best of show" ribbons. However, with this year's lemon meringues and brownies, there are no firsts. "If the judges do not deem any entries worth a first place, they can just award second places," she says. "We don't want to let people think that they can just turn in anything and win a prize."


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