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Judging food turned out to be piece of cake (muffin, too)

When Citrus County extension agent Mary Sue Kennington asked me to be a food judge at the Citrus County Fair, I was certain she had uncovered a great truth about journalists: If it has to do with eating, we'll volunteer.

Instead, I found that I was merely a pawn.

"You were actually something of a political appointment," Kennington said. "We usually like to get a local food editor or staff from the local media as a judge, so they get an inside view (of the judging)."

I'm certain there is more to it than that _ like getting good publicity. Well, that won't work here. I'll tell it, or write it, like it is.

What I want to write about is the fun, the food and the marvelous ladies who have done this many times before and were kind enough to assist an initiate to their inner sanctum.

Harriet Neal and Claudia Hendry, both from Hernando County, shared some of the high points of their experiences, particularly the Civil War biscuits that were so hard they couldn't be cut with a knife.

No, they weren't left over from fairs of the past. They had been made from a recipe dating from the Civil War and were purposely made hard so the soldiers could carry them. When they were ready to eat, the biscuits were dipped into whatever liquid was available.

I started out judging the Adult World baked goods.

"Just use common sense," said Harriet, slicing a loaf of wheat bread.

For a city gal who buys wheat bread from Publix, that's like trying to tell me how to fix my car's transmission. But, guess what? It worked.

She showed me the texture of the bread, the color of the loaf, and finally _ the moment I had been waiting for _ the tasting. Oh, it was good! I could imagine it hot from the oven with chunks of cold butter on it. Sadly, tasting is usually limited to a small chunk, perhaps 1 or 2 inches square.

Pat Harter, a retired home economics teacher from Indiana, and I were to judge the Youth World division of baked goods.

"Remember, these are young people," she advised, noting that while criteria are similar to adult judging, we are here to encourage participation. We are also able to offer written suggestions for improvement, and some were made on the backs of the numbered tags.

There were a number of blue ribbons earned, and I emphasize earned, because these entries were truly tasty. Deductions may have been in presentation or texture, but certainly not in flavor.

My two favorites were the onion dill bread, a great yeast bread not overpowered by either flavor, and the raw apple muffins.

"Oh, my gawsh!" I said as I bit into the moist magnificence of this muffin gem.

My taste buds thrilled to the fusion of tastes . . . apples, walnuts, raisins and a moistness reminiscent of a cinnamony sponge cake. How could I pass on this with only a nibble? I didn't. I went back for more.

I bow before the talents of this youthful baker. If she is smart she will take this recipe and her talent and forge it into a moneymaker to pay her way into a top level culinary school where she will become the next Julia Childs.

We awarded the coveted purple "Top of Division" ribbon to the muffins.

Meanwhile, over in the adult category, Harriet and Claudia were tasting such delicacies as Velveeta fudge, chocolate chip cheesecake and rum cake.

Of course, to do justice to my journalistic objectivity, I had to go over and nibble one or two of these culinary delights.

Velveeta fudge is creamy, not cloyingly sweet, and definitely worth a second taste. The cheesecake was fluffy. I have yet to find a recipe that will make my cheesecakes anything other than heavy. I want this recipe.

As for the rum cake . . . after the judging was completed, Gloria Cuylor, Kennington's assistant, admitted to creating this spirited treat.

"I got up at 4 o'clock to put on some more rum glaze," she said. Perhaps she hoped the judges would be intoxicated by its flavor.

I have a suggestion for the Fair Association. Since each entry is accompanied by a copy of its recipe, publish a collection of the top winners from the past few years, blue ribbon and up. The money could be used for improvements to the fairgrounds, the FCE bread baking area, or to assist youngsters who might need a hand to participate in fair events. And I'm sure the books would sell.

My last suggestion is more of a request. Remember me when you are picking judges next year.

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