In 1976, while working toward a master’s degree in design at the U of M, Curt Pederson got a part-time job with Creative Activities at the State Fair. Fast-forward 45 years and he’s the superintendent of the department of the fair responsible for judging more than 6,000 items across over 550 categories—everything from both hand- and machine-made quilts to dill pickles to cookies to apple pie.
“There’s nothing that says ‘State Fair’ like apple pie,” he says.
According to Pederson, the building is neatly divided into two cultures: the handcrafts on one side and the canning and baking on the other. His judges are all contract workers with decades of experience.
“At the end of the fair each year, everyone who works in Creative Activities says, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to do this again,’” he says. “And then, of course, the year passes, and you start looking forward to it.”
Around 100 years ago, Creative Activities originated in a grand hall called the Woman’s Building. For an agricultural fair highlighting the latest developments in agricultural equipment, machinery, and farming tactics, it was determined that something should be done as an exposition to highlight the equal work of women.
Most of the canning and baking judges are members of the Home Ec Skull and Bones. Most of our judges are home economics graduates from the University of Minnesota. And many of them are members of Beta of Clovia, a home economics sorority.
The canning judges are wonders. An experienced canning judge can usually grade according to sight. And once the jars are opened, simply by smell.
Most judges rotate through different categories of canning or baked goods each year—except for the salsa judge. I don’t find too many who can sit through 30 or 40 salsa entries and, at the end of it, articulate why this particular jar won. And that’s what she can do.
Many of the people who have won multiple blue ribbons have large families. Maybe they have an outlet for their baked goods—a reason to bake other than just competition.
You have to be a resident of Minnesota to compete. I’ve run into a few situations where the farmland actually extends partially into Iowa. And it’s interesting to me that people actually bring that up. “Well, which side of the border does your house sit on?”
You can’t win four blue ribbons in a row. If you win first place three years in a row in one particular category, you have to sit the next year out.
Although Creative Activities is tradition bound, it has a new baking contest this year that involves cricket powder. The business is called the 3 Cricketeers, and it’s a husband and wife and their three children, who raise the crickets. And the children, I’m told, named the business. Crickets are one of the best sources of protein.