TAMPA — By day, Tampa Bay realtor. But once a year, Lutz resident Jo Anne "Joni" Hartzler leaps into action in another way entirely. One that includes flour, sugar, butter and a whole lot of competitive zeal.
Hartzler started years ago as an exhibitor in the horticulture competitions at the Florida State Fair, which runs through Monday in Tampa. She clearly had a powerful green thumb, nabbing "best of show" with different entries of bonsai, orchids, succulents and dish gardens.
She got the fever. Growing up with a sweet tooth (breakfast: hot tea with cookie dunkers) and with a mother who routinely baked cookies, butterscotch pies, bread pudding and perfect divinity, maybe it was inevitable that she'd set her sights on the baking competitions at the state fair.
"My first entry in the baking competition in 2007 was an apple pie," she said. "As usual, I used a lard-based crust that always worked. As I rolled out the dough, I sprinkled it with a lot of cinnamon to make a pretty marbled pattern, making it more dramatic along with tastier. Since my mother had always cut perfect dough into shapes to make the top crust look pretty, I cut out the little ovals to vent it and used them to make petals into flowers on top."
Since the judges takes several hours to deliberate, Hartzler wandered off to enjoy the exhibits and food at the fair. Rejoining the crowd in the Florida Living building for the results, she was intimidated. All the bakers seemed more confident and familiar with the process. Still, she was hoping for a ribbon.
First they announced the winners of all the cake categories, then on to the pies, which came before the cookies. The pie announcements were broken down by cream, chocolate and fruit, with the third-, second- and first-place winner in each.
"I was with my husband, and when they announced I had a blue ribbon, I almost cried," she said. "Then while I'm sitting back admiring my huge Florida State Fair blue ribbon for best fruit pie, I hear, 'And the Best of Show overall pie, Joni Hartzler for her Creamy Dreamy Cinnamon Crusted Apple Pie.' "
She was hooked. Since then she has won Best Cake (Original Cannoli Cake), Best Cookies, Best Pie, Best Candy and Best Sugar Free items, a track record that allows her now to participate in the Sweepstakes Baking. She says there are fewer competitors in the sweepstakes but that the competition is fierce.
"Still, why not compete with the best?"
Every February, Hartzler's friends begin sniffing around, waiting for her practice efforts. She says she doesn't win every time, but her "friends all get to try out some really unique treats along the way."
She has advice for would-be competitors.
"If you're not sure if what you made is good enough, always enter it anyway. More than once I have hesitated about entering something as I question if it is pretty enough or tasty enough and more than once I was happy to be wrong!"
Contact Laura Reiley at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.