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A sweet gig: Judging at the Minnesota State Fair

From apple pies to decorated cakes, what makes a winning entry? Longtime judge Jeanne Markell let us know.

FALCON HEIGHTS, Minn. — When Jeanne Markell's friends find out she's a food judge for the Minnesota State Fair, the response is always, "It sounds so wonderful to eat all that apple pie all day." 

But Markell says, "By about one o'clock in the afternoon, you're ready for a nice vinegar salad." 

Markell has been a food judge since 2009, after retiring from a 40-year-run at the University of Minnesota. Among her roles, she served as associate dean for external relations at the U of M Extension. 

"There's a lot more that goes into scoring a bread, or a pie, or a cake than flavor. It's appearance, the characteristic of the crumb, the shape," Markell said. 

Markell recalled the year she judged 312 apple pies, with help from a colleague. 

"You learn actually after the first hour or so to be much more judicious in swallowing things and taking it into your stomach," Markell said. 

But depending on the category, not every entry makes it to the tasting round. 

"We can't possibly do the same treatment analysis of 300 pies or 400 chocolate chip cookies. So that's the first task is to look upon all the entries and see, okay where are the obvious non-winners. That usually has to do with the shape, or the overbrowning, or the undercooking," Markell said. "Then the 25 left, they really get the treatment. They get tasted, broken apart — looking very carefully at the texture. Then that's where we make the comments on the little judging sheet." 

According to Creative Activities Superintendent Tony Schwandt, that was not the case for their citrus cake entries. Schwandt said there's no visual way to say no so all 71 entries got tasted this year. 

Credit: Jeanne Markell

Overall, the Creative Activities building had about 7,000 entries for the 2023 Fair. About 2,000 of those were baking entries with 450 more entries than last year. Schwandt said that brings them back to pre-pandemic levels. 

The State Fair was canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic. Then Markell came down with COVID-19 in 2021 and it affected her sense of taste. She decided to take the year off. Then last year she was still skeptical about her taste buds so opted to judge entries based more on categories like appearance and texture and got a second opinion for points related to taste. 

Markell judged entries this year over two days, prior to the State Fair. Among the categories she judged, included cake and cookie decorating. Markell recalled her grandkids disagreeing with her top choices. 

"When you go to see all the cakes on display, a lot of people are going to say, 'What? Why did they pick that one? I think this one is way cuter.' But when you really have the time, as I did, to be with those cakes... my goodness the quality of, the creativity, and the workmanship was incredible," Markell said. 

However, Markell is also aware of her personal preferences and does her best to be fair. For example, "I have to be really careful if I judge chocolate cakes because I have a real bias toward dense chocolate cakes. Moist and really heavily chocolate. But that's just a preference. Some people like cakes that are lighter and less dense. So usually I try to call a colleague over and say, 'I'm looking between these three. What do you think?'" 

There are about 20-25 food judges and about 30 craft judges. In prior years, a home economics degree was required. Schwandt said that is now harder to come by. They do look for food judges to have a background in food science. 

"We are seeing a lot more men entering foods exhibits and younger people. I'm really happy about that," Markell said. "Lately we're burgeoning into more diversity. Recognizing first of all the diversity of Minnesota, the ethnic diversity. There's more food categories that represent the cultures in Minnesota we didn't use to have." 

For amateur bakers interested in entering the State Fair, what's Markell's advice? 

When it comes to pies, she sees the most problems with the crust, saying, "Making a good pie crust is kind of.. you can follow a recipe but you really have to sort of practice, practice, practice and watch people who do it well." 

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