Everyone has their reasons for attending the opening night of the Stanislaus County Fair.
The rides. The music. The food. The animals.
For me, it was all about exploring this year’s theme – “Flavors of the Valley “ – first hand, by serving as quasi-celebrity judge for David Dubyak’s Eighth Annual All-American Apple Pie Contest.
Yes, I lucked in to the dreamiest gig at the fair: eating pie for free.
I was tasked, along with my four fellow judges, to rate a thin sliver of each pie in five categories; appearance, crust texture, crust taste, filling texture, and filling taste.
Sounds easy enough, right? Hah.
At first, sure. Eating apple pie was easy as, well, pie.
“So what do we think?” Dubyak asked as he set down one of the first few pies in front of us.
“We want to eat it!” shouted a fellow judge.
But then the horror set in. These pies were served sans-ice cream. Á la nada.
“Ice cream would compromise the flavor,” said Barbara Bawanan, director of the United Samaritans Foundation, with a smile that spoke to my pain.
Did I mention it was 102 degrees? And they wouldn’t stop the contest long enough for me to grab a 4-H milkshake?
“Alright, everybody smile and say, ‘heatstroke,’” Dubyak joked as he snapped a picture of the now-profusely sweating, sugar high judges.
We were given water, sure, but who eats pie with water? I wanted milk! I wanted Irish cream! I wanted an emergency beer, at least!
Around pie number five the hot hard realization set in that we were not getting any ice cream. I sat down, fork in hand, and dedicated myself to judging in the hopes we’d get done quickly enough for me to grab a Foster Farms cone.
With my newfound devotion, I quickly learned that the pies were – unsurprisingly – uniformly excellent, despite their lack of ice cream. It really came down to niggling little differences in separating a pie from a 3 or a 5.
And being an objective judge was made no easier by the rows of hopeful bakers seated just a few feet away, expectant and excited that their pie might reign supreme.
“I kinda want to know whose heart we’re breaking,” a fellow judge deadpanned after a low score was doled out.
In the end, I decided that you can’t judge a pie by its lattice. Pies aren’t just for looking at; they’re for eating. It’s what’s on the inside that counts.
The apple fillings varied from applesauce to thick rum and caramel-drenched apple slices. Crusts ran the gamut from flaky to crispy, from molasses-flavored to shortening-infused.
The judges came to the conclusion that Sharon Drueen deserved first place and $100 for her lattice-topped concoction. Elsie Silva took home second and $50 for her traditional number.
But my personal favorite was Jessie Henrich’s pie, a third-place finisher, which featured the most delicious crumb topping I’ve ever tasted.
If you’re reading, Henrich, I want your recipe. Or at least another pie.
The real winners, though, were Turlock’s homeless. The apple pie contest benefits the United Samaritans Foundation; donating all but the thin sliver of pie we tasted to the hungry folks who don’t often get to have a slice of pie.
As judging wrapped up, my sugar rush undeniable, I decided to go see what had drawn others to the opening night of the fair.
I entered the midway, full of more neon signs and screaming merrymakers than Las Vegas, and sat transfixed as a group of teens swung upside down again and again, doing loop-de-loops on a ride called “Ring of Fire.”
Johnny Cash had nothing on this ride.
“It felt like I had a bug in my eye,” said a wind-blown Bailey Ortiz of Turlock after she disembarked. She thumbed toward a friend and said, “I thought she was going to puke.”
“It was fun,” said a different friend, Karly Schumann of Turlock.
A short walk away, at the bright pink Lowe’s Playhouse, Laura Mussman of Modesto sat with her little sister, Elizabeth Mussman, as Elizabeth worked on one of the Lowe’s Make and Take Projects for children.
Visiting the fair is a family tradition for the Mussmans, Laura said, as she rattled off a list of fun things to do. But this was the family’s first stop at the Lowe’s Playhouse, a new attraction for this year’s fair.
“She saw this for two seconds and had to do it,” Laura Mussman said.
And what was Elizabeth’s project?
“A pot,” Elizabeth said, paintbrush in hand, as she drew flowers on a simple clay pot.
Sitting in the front row at the Budweiser Variety Free Stage was Jackie Blanca, who drove all the way from San Francisco to see WAR play. She’s kind of a groupie, she joked, as she told me how she left the city at 1 p.m. to beat traffic and secure her seat.
Blanca got hooked on WAR at their Marin County Fair show a few years back, and has since seen them at Shoreline Amphitheatre – before a few stabbings stopped the show. She even pulled out her camera to show me a picture she snapped with WAR’s guitarist just before the Turlock show.
“I kind of stalked him,” Blanca joked.
The seats were full of WAR fans, including Verna Lane of Lake Havasu City, Ariz., who rearranged a trip to visit some nearby family so she’d be here for the show.
“I’ve been sitting in this one spot since 3 p.m.,” Lane said.
Tommy Young, of Oakdale, sat just a few seats down. He said he came to the fair to show sheep and goats – something he’s been raising “too long” – but took time out to catch the WAR concert.
“I’m one of those lowrider cowboys,” Young said, referencing the WAR song.
The talk of goats sent me over to the Goat Show Ring, where I watched Ruby the goat be named Supreme Champion Doe – effectively the best female goat at the fair from the hundreds of entrants.
This was Ruby’s second consecutive overall victory at the Stanislaus County Fair, in only the second year that market goats – the kind for breeding, not for eating – have been judged.
I spoke with Ruby’s owner, Christie Hobby of Hughson, as she struggled to get her goat to stand still.
I guess the old adage about stubborn goats is true.
“They’ve got their own personality,” Hobby said.
Hobby, who has been raising goats since 2001, said Ruby is notable because of her uniformity and solid build. And she knows a good goat when she sees one, having grown up on a 16 acre ranch with 350 head of goat.
But at age 19, this will be the last fair for the Modesto Junior College student.
“So go out with a bang,” Hobby said.
As I walked toward the fair’s exit I didn’t feel any surer about the fair’s best attraction.
So what was it that brought all these people to the fair on this hot summer day?
To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.