This story was originally published in the Charleston Daily Mail on August 6, 2014.
Sandra Perry won’t get much rest over the next 24 hours. Neither will the oven in her Ronceverte home.
Judging for the West Virginia State Fair’s food contests begins tomorrow and Perry likes to keep her dishes as fresh as possible.
That just gets a little tricky if, like Perry, you have entered 74 of the competition’s 184 categories.
“It does require organization,” she said.
Perry, 56, tries to spread her grocery shopping over the month or two leading up to the fair. She usually spends between $200 and $300 on ingredients.
“A good year is when you make your money back,” she said.
Most years are good years for Perry.
She has won more than 500 ribbons in her nearly 30 years of competition. The prize money usually covers all her ingredient expenses with a little spending cash left over.
But right now, any thoughts of blue ribbons or prize money are far, far away.
Her canned goods entries were finished weeks ago, but Perry has been busy for the last few days readying her more perishable entries.
Although she only has to submit a few of each item, Perry tries to make double what she will need. It gives her options.
“You need to pick the better ones. Consistency is really important.”
She distributes the leftovers to family and friends, who stop by constantly to see what Perry has ready.
On Monday, she made peanut butter fudge, “snow fudge” with coconut and almond, chocolate fudge, toffee bonbons and peanut butter balls.
She mixed up her cookie dough on Tuesday and put it in the refrigerator.
“That way the flavors get together really well,” she said.
This morning, she will get up at about 7 a.m. to put together the dough for her whole wheat bread, white bread and cinnamon rolls, since they need extra time to rise.
Next she will mix up and bake quick breads which, despite their name, take longer in the oven than other dishes.
While the quick breads are in the oven, Perry will mix up the cupcake batter. Those will go in the oven once the quick breads are finished.
As the cupcakes bake, Perry will remove the chilled cookie dough from the refrigerator, form it into balls and plop them onto baking sheets, ready for the oven.
The yeast breads will be the last to go in the oven. She plans to finish up about 8 p.m. tonight.
Perry will wait until Thursday morning to bake her biscuits and cornbread since those items are much tastier when they’re fresh out of the oven.
She allows the baked goods to cool on wire racks, then transfers them to paper plates to cool. She uses Dixie brand since they’re inexpensive and pretty strong, too.
Once her cookies, muffins and breads are completely cool, Perry covers the food with plastic cling wrap — she goes through about 400 feet before each fair — and attaches a tag with her contestant number.
The morning of judging, Perry and her husband load the plates onto cardboard flats, fold down the seats of their Mercury Mountaineer and load them up.
Ever so carefully, they drive that carload of carbohydrates to the West Virginia State Fairgrounds, about six miles from their home.
Competitors have to present their entries at the fair between 7:30 to 10 a.m. Thursday. Perry will not find out who won until the fair opens on Friday.
Perry learned to bake as a child from her mother — everybody loved Florence Birchfield’s homemade light bread and sea foam candy — and she also enjoyed visiting the State Fair every year. The fairgrounds were only a few miles from where she grew up.
But Perry never considered entering the fair’s food contests until she was in her 20s.
Her son’s babysitter was an avid contestant and, knowing of Perry’s baking skills, encouraged her to enter, too.
Perry submitted an apple pie to the Crisco Pie Contest. She came in 11th.
“I had to start working on my skills a lot.”
She returned the following year with another pie, a pan of fudge and some cupcakes.
Perry would get her first major win in her third year of competition, in the fair’s now defunct Archway Cookie Contest
The category took blue ribbon entries from all the other cookie categories and pitted them against one another.
Perry took top prize with her peanut cookie with raspberry jam and coconut on top.
“I won that and I was so excited I screamed and jumped up and down,” she said. “I was hooked from then on out.”
The next year she entered 40 different categories.
“As the years progressed so did the amount of stuff I entered.”
Perry has now convinced some of her friends to begin competing, and has also grown close to her fellow contestants.
“It kind of becomes a family. I jump and shout when they win and they do when I win,” she said.
She does all her baking without any extra help, however, and only uses the oven in her kitchen.
“My husband, last year, he washed the dishes for me. Bless his heart.”
Perry also takes part in some of the special contests throughout the fair, which take place in front of a live audience.
This year she will try her hand at the brand-new “chocolate lovers” category, sponsored by the Lewisburg Chocolate Festival. She plans to bake a chocolate cake with chocolate ganache covered in white chocolate shavings.
Once the fair is over, Perry will take off her oven mitts for a while.
She bakes a little at Christmas, but other than that, there won’t be any baked goods coming from Perry’s kitchen until next summer.
“I get it all out of my system,” she said.
The West Virginia State Fair opens Friday at the state fairgrounds in Lewisburg. It will run until Aug. 16, with gates opening each day at 8 a.m.
Visit www.statefairofwv.com for more information.
Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-4830 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ZackHarold.