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You’ve probably walked past the refrigerated cases in the Horticulture Building at the Wisconsin State Fair. And maybe you’ve looked at the goods inside – the pies, casseroles, cookies, cakes and breads. Maybe you’ve even asked yourself: who enters these things?
This year, I tracked down four women who’ve been entering the culinary competition for over 20 years running. They call themselves the "State Fair Step Wives."
They had a lot to say about winning, losing, and sticking together.
Years competing: nearly 30
Winning: I've won every day of every year that I entered, except last Friday. It was my first shut out day and the first time I lost.
Entries: There's a limit of 35 entries per person. And I would always do 35 every year. Last year, my husband said: "This is ridiculous. You have to cut back." So, I cut it back to 29 or 30. This year I did 26. I know I have to cut back, but then I see something and I'm like, "Oh, that sounds like fun; I should do that." I actually keep a pad by the side of my bed that I use to write down ideas that come to me in the middle of the night. I have a three-drawer filing cabinet filled with recipes. I have a two drawer cabinet just for pies.
Losing: One year, my husband won the American Pie Counsel Festival – with his first pie ever! He rolled the crust to death like eight times and then it didn't work, so he threw it in the pie pan because he was mad and then he took the palm of his hand and patted it all down. Meanwhile, I braided all the little crust around the top of mine – and he won!. It was a long drive home from Florida. He said to me: I don't know why you didn't win. Yours took so much work. I just threw mine in the pan. I wanted to push him into the foothills of the Carolina mountains. Nobody would have ever known, would they? Justifiable homicide, that's what I would have called it.
Things I wish people knew: I hear people sometimes come through the fair the very end of the fair and say, "How the heck did that ever win?" Well, it won because it was a completely different color three weeks ago! It didn't look like that and it didn't have green fur on it.
I try to keep that in mind when I decide what to make: what's going to hold up at that fair? I made a peach salad this year for one of the categories. I knew it probably wouldn't hold up and I can see already that it's not going to. Luckily it had a brown dressing on it so it sort of looked like it when it came in. But, this is only week one; by the end of the fair it's going to have fur, I know it is.
Favorite thing submitted in 2015: My coconut crème pie. I had shaved white chocolate on it and toasted coconut. I liked the looks of it. There's some things that I might hate the ingredients but I love the way it turned out or that it was pretty, I like to do pretty things. But, they’ve change the rules and now we can’t add garnishes; it's tougher when you can't make them pretty.
The Reality Show: You start to really get to know one another when you compete. These ladies, we’ve known each other through deaths, through cancers, through illnesses. They become your fair friends or – as some people call them – step wives. We call ourselves step wives because Charlie (my husband) is the only guy here. Last night, I get a text from Jan, who says, "Tell Charlie hi. Good luck tomorrow. Signed, wife number one." She's step-wife one. Last Friday we decided there will be a show, a reality show. They're going to call it "State Fair Step Wives." Or "Baking Babes." They haven't decided what the show will be called but it's for sure going to fly.
Trying new things: I like competing. It encourages us to try new things we've never tried before. We spend more money on this state fair stuff than we would ever spend on our family. Prosciutto ham, for example. I used prosciutto ham this year and my husband was like, "We should try that." And I said: "No, get your hands off of it! It's 15 bucks a pound, are you crazy?"
Hometown: West Allis
Years competing: 44
Winning: I’ve won every year but one. I can't remember exactly when it was, but it might have been somewhere in the early 1980s. The very first year I got three ribbons.
My youngest son was four when I started; now he's now 48. One of my submissions was a cookie, and when they announced the blue ribbon, my four year old goes at the top of his lungs: ‘Mommy, that your number!!’ So, the whole building knew I got the blue ribbon for the peanut butter cookie."
Dedication: I always enter the maximum number of items, which is 35. My son keeps saying: "Mom, you've got to cut back, you've got to cut back." So, this year I did 25. I used to do everything the day before the fair. I'd send my kids outside and they were told not to bother mom. If they needed to eat, they made peanut butter sandwiches.
Comeraderie: We always sit together. I always get here really early so I can get the front seats and save them for all the ladies. I call them my State Fair friends ... Beth, and Sheila, and Dawn, and Terry and Jan, we see everybody once a year. Matter of fact, one time I took my grandson to the doctor, and Jan walked in with her mother. And I went, "Oh, hi Jan." That's was really strange.
Near Disasters: One year, my oven died. And I was just starting on making my food. So, I called church to see if I could use their ovens. They said yes. So, we packed up EVERYTHING. All my pans, all my bowls, everything. That's the fastest I ever got anything done because I had more ovens.
Hometown: West Allis
Years competing: 38
Winning: I’ve been blessed. I’ve won ribbons every single year. But, I'm a nervous wreck until the first day of judging. And then, if you get some ribbons the first day, then you can relax.
Dedication: I never enter 35 things like a lot of the ladies. The most I ever entered was 15. This year I cut down to about nine or ten because I only like to do things fresh the day before. I'm not comfortable with freezing things. I know a lot of people are and there's nothing wrong with it but I'm not comfortable doing that. When I was younger, I used to go without any sleep, I would just stay up all night long doing all this stuff.
Memories: They used to judge everything all in one day; it went until midnight. My daughter was only about 6 or 7 years old, so she'd sit with her coloring book all day from 8 or 9 in the morning till midnight. Thank goodness I only had the one kid and she was good. Now, my goodness, they're out of here by 4 or 5 o'clock. That's a treat.
Celebrity: I was actually on an episode of Food Nation with Bobby Flay. When they called, I didn't believe that it was actually someone from New York calling me. But, they told me I was recommended by State Fair. My goodness. I've been blessed and I win things; but there are other people that win more than me … They came, their whole entourage. They said, "We'll film it at your house," I said, "No, we're going to use my daughter's house." She has a nice big house with a big kitchen and so they set everything up there and the biggest thrill was is when Bobby and the producer wanted seconds of my things. I made a three-cheese quiche that had won a blue ribbon that year and my pecan cranberry tarts.
Comeraderie: This is not a blood sport. We root for each other and cheer each other on. There's no back-biting and every time somebody wins something we congratulate them or we encourage them. That’s the wonderful thing. It's only once a year that you see these people normally, but we've all become really good friends. When my husband died fifteen years ago, all of these ladies came to his funeral. It meant so much to me and it just shows you what a bond there has been all of these years. Even with newcomers ... a young person starts to enter, we encourage them. We clap whenever anybody wins, it's a beautiful thing, it really is.
Hometown: Oak Creek
Years competing: 31
Winning: Every year I've won something. But, don't ask me how many ribbons because I have no idea. My mom asked me the other day and I said, "One of these days when I retire I'm just going to put it all on the wall."
Motivation: My mom died ten years ago, and it was her death bed wish. The night before she died she said, "Keep doing the competitions, keep doing the pie contests." That was what she requested of all the girls in our family.
Preparation: I always enter all 35 entries. My planning for the next year starts the day after State Fair is over. When you do this, your mind is constantly going. If you see something on television or if you're reading a magazine your mind's going, "Oh what can I do with this?" It's like a continuous addiction, and you just can't turn it off. You can not turn it off for the life of you. You think you can, but you can’t.
Cookbooks: I have billions of cookbooks that go all the way back to the 30's that I use. Everything looks kind of disorganized; but, it’s a neat disorganization. One year I decided to organize my cookbooks ... I could not find nothing!
Disasters: One year I made this torte ... Beautiful, beautiful chocolate tort. I got as far as Johnson Creek and I noticed it sliding. The air conditioner didn't work in the van that year. And it was sliding, and I said, "Pull over, we've got to fix that tort." We get it all propped up again, I got to Sullivan and it was sliding more; but I kept putting it back. And then I walked through the door at State Fair with it and the top totally slid right off.
Another year, I lost a pie in the parking lot ... it fell over and everybody was like, "Oh my God, you lost your pie!" I'm like, "I haven't had any sleep, I don't really care."
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.