Being ‘judgemental,’ tasting good, and having good taste: talking with Rory about State Fair contests

Andy_Chad_Rory_State_Fair_JudgingWe were surprised this summer, when we realized that 2016 marks the fifth year that AllSpice has sponsored cooking contests at the Iowa State Fair. Five years! That feels like a lot!

We asked AllSpice owner Rory Brown (pictured on right, in photo, with AllSpice co-owner Andy Haning-Brown, left, and Chad Russell, center) to tell us about this year’s contest judging experience, and to reflect on our half-decade (!!) of event sponsorship at the State Fair:

On this year’s Iowa State Fair: This year was interesting and the experience was really different judging the state fair competitions. In the past, we have always had store staff do the judging, but this year we did it differently, and had the fair assign judges to our competitions and I was the only person from the store who judged in every competition.

Appointed judges included retired Consumer Science teachers, life-long bakers, a winery owner, and career food judges at the Iowa State Fair. During this year’s experience, I discovered that these longtime judges pick up on different things from one another. In past years, I found the AllSpice staff generally scored things similarly and could quickly gain consensus on which entries should be first, second, and third. [That like-mindedness may explain why the crew seems to work together so well at the store the rest of the year!]  Anyway, this year, things were a little different, with the the variety of judges, and it seemed that perceptions and personal taste varied more from judge to judge. I definitely learned a few things from each group of judges whom I worked with, and I am glad to have had the opportunity to work with each of them.

2016_ISF_Star_TrekOn sponsoring competitions: As we sponsor competitions each year, we figure out how to adapt and grow them, to make them more fun and challenging both for us to judge, and for entrants to participate in. With each passing year, we’ve gotten more specific in how we write the competition rules to make it clear what we’re looking for and how we will judge them.

Food as journey: In judging this year’s competition, I had this revelation: what I love about good food is the feeling of being taken on a journey as I taste it. For me, a good food journey happens when you take a bite and experience one flavor, followed by another distinct flavor, and sometimes even finish with yet another flavor.

A great example of a wonderful food journey from this year’s competition was the Aztec “hot” chocolate ice cream. This ice cream started with a rich, salty chocolate flavor, followed by the bold flavor of cinnamon – almost like Red Hots, and finished with the tingling heat of the chiles. Eating this ice cream was like being on a great roller coaster, one where you want to experience the ride over and over again.

2016_Iowa_State_FairLooking back; looking ahead: In the five years AllSpice has sponsored food competitions at the State Fair, our events have evolved. We have changed up or removed competitions that didn’t garner lots of entries, and we have added some new events that we hoped prospective entrants would enjoy participating in. For this year, we also streamlined the different competitions, so that we only had one division (one contest) with a single class (one category), instead of a division with multiple classes. We made this change to streamline the competition and the judging. This year we had a good number of entrants but the volume of entries was pretty manageable, so each of our judges could taste all of the entries in every competition.

AllSpicers Val and Eva judging at the Fair
AllSpicers Val and Eva judging at the Fair, 2015

Frequently-asked questions. When I tell people that I sponsor and judge food competitions at the Iowa State Fair, they are always interested in what that means. I explain that I create the competitions and the rules around those competitions, and encourage people to enter their creations, to win gift certificates from AllSpice.

Being ‘judgemental’: Then, when fair time rolls around, I get the opportunity to taste each of the entries and provide feedback to the participant. I explain how it still makes me nervous to judge people’s food, because I don’t enjoy “being critical” of other people’s cooking, but judging the entries and giving feedback always ends up being worth it  – I always go home with great stories about the winners and the amazing creations that people come up with.

Good-tasting, or just good taste? One funny thing that people often ask is if I have ever had to taste anything that was just awful, or downright inedible. I have to report in the 5 years that I have been judging at the Iowa State Fair, I have not eaten anything that I have regretted eating or considered inedible.  Maybe that’s as much a reflection of the tastes and skills of the people entering the AllSpice contests as anything else. (Thank you, entrants, for making things we’re happy to try!)

I really enjoy our competitions every year at the Iowa State Fair. The events are so much fun, and I particularly enjoy talking with the other judges about their thoughts on each of the entries, and how they viewed them. And I especially enjoy seeing the contestants’ eyes light up when their original creation earns them a ribbon.

I’m already looking forward to next year’s fair!