Blue Ribbon winners: Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Blue Ribbon winners: Photo by Danny Fulgencio

For three weeks every fall, Dallas becomes a small town. All the neighbors gather to gawk at the prize heifer, to ride the Ferris wheel, to eat corn dogs, to gamble hard-earned dollars at carnival games.

In short, the State Fair of Texas returns, Americana at its finest.

Strolling the fair grounds, it harkens to a simpler, pre-iPhone time. But nowhere is this Mayberry-esque quality more evident than the Creative Arts Building. Step inside, and you’ll see colorful handmade quilts, paintings and photographs lining the walls. Dolls from every era stare back at you through display cases. Meticulous needlework dazzles. Jars of perfect pickles line shelves. Depending on the day, pies or cakes or crazy Spam concoctions cover tables.

And the ribbons. Oh, those ribbons. The quintessential Blue Ribbon proudly graces this painting, that doll, that chocolate cake.

How are those much-desired ribbons awarded? Who decides someone’s handiwork or collectible deserves a blue or red? You might be surprised to learn that some of the Creative Arts judges are your neighbors.

The hardest part of judging? “Keeping a poker face. All the bakers are watching you taste their cake. Every now and then you just want to spit it out, but you can’t.”

Full disclosure: My husband, Jonathan, and I were asked several years ago to lend our taste buds to the chili competition at the fair. Being the State Fair nerds that we are, we jumped at the chance and have happily served as judges every year since.

Lakewood neighbor Sally Copass-Jackson can tell you about judging. A serious doll collector for 20 years — she just returned from a state convention with a bundle of ribbons — Copass-Jackson began entering her dolls in the State Fair competition. After a few years, she applied and was accepted as a judge.

Copass-Jackson expertly eyes 200 or so modern and antique dolls every year at the fair, and she first looks at the composition of each doll’s head, which “determines what category the doll should compete in,” she says. “Is it made of vinyl? Bisque? Wood? The body can be made of something else or the same. It doesn’t matter.”

She looks for the doll that best represents its category: “Does it stand out? Is it in mint condition? Does the whole presentation of the doll pop? Grab you? Make a statement?”

And as a former State Fair competitor herself, Copass-Jackson is sensitive to the process. “I approach it as I wanted to be judged,” she says. “I wanted the judges to take their time and not just make snap decisions.” She says she is ever mindful of the “time, energy and thought” that goes into competitors’ selections.

East Dallas resident Helen Duran brings the same serious approach to judging cakes and cookies. A former store director at Central Market, Duran was recruited to judge about 10 years ago. She can tell you all about the science of taste: “It happens all over the mouth: tongue, cheeks, upper throat and the soft palate … each white bump on your tongue has 20-30 taste buds …”

But it’s cake! Cookies! Just of matter of choosing the yummiest, right? Nope. “Cakes are judged on taste, moisture, texture,” Duran says. Judges review the recipe, checking for suspicious ingredients. For example, an egg yolk has no business in a true white cake. They then eyeball the texture of the cut cake before taking a bite to assess taste and moisture.

The hardest part of judging? “Keeping a poker face,” she says. “All the bakers are watching you taste their cake. Every now and then you just want to spit it out, but you can’t.”

The occasional clunker is to be expected. But for those of us with a sweet tooth, it looks like a dream job. Yes, Duran agrees, it is fun. She hastens to add, though, that it can be “really exhausting for your palate.” The palate cleansers judges partake of (pickles and cheddar cheese) “only work for so long.” Almost every year after tasting dozens of sugary treats, Duran heads straight for the Tornado Tater booth: “The salt is really appealing after all that sugar.”

Speaking of savory, Todd Liberty from the Hillside neighborhood knows a thing or two about judging chili: This year his 15th time. The chili cook-off that occurs at the State Fair is sanctioned by the Chili Appreciation Society International (CASI) and is a qualifying event for the granddaddy of all chili cook-offs, the Terlingua International Chili Championship. Chili judges know this can be a pivotal event for the cooks.

Liberty knows the drill: Judge each chili on its own merits and evaluate it for aroma, color, consistency, taste and aftertaste. He says last year’s chili was the best ever overall, but he has had tasting challenges. He recalls one chili in particular, which was an odd green color. He later found out that the chili had fish in it. Generally, though, the chili is impressive: “Last year I had to keep reminding myself to just take a taste,” he says. “I was ready to find a bowl and just have a meal.”

So as you stroll around the State Fair of Texas, corn dog and fried butter in hand, remember to check out Creative Arts. Your neighbors had a hand in some serious decision-making.

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