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For judges, awarding top honors at fair not an easy job

By Garren Shipley -- gshipley@nvdaily.com

Mary Reilly hands judges pictures
Mary Reilly, left, hands judges Elizabeth Olson and Weldon Miller pictures entered in the youth painting category at the Clarke County Fair on Tuesday. Dennis Grundman/Daily

Hazel Staley examines and tastes a piece of fudge
Hazel Staley, longtime judge from Montgomery County, Md., examines and tastes a piece of fudge entered in the adult baked goods contest. Dennis Grundman/Daily

BERRYVILLE -- Compared to the flash and noise of the midway, the exhibit buildings at the Clarke County Fair look sedate.

But don't be fooled. The multiple rows of photographs, vegetables, artwork and baked goods are the home of an intense competition.

It's not easy to pick winners, but a small army of judges does it every year. That's just what longtime judge Hazel Staley, of Montgomery County, Md., was doing Tuesday morning.

Staley worked at the Montgomery County Fair for nearly four decades before lending her experience to the Clarke fair.

Judges have to keep an air of professionalism, no matter how good -- or bad -- the fare is.

"You don't let your facial expression show. If you have something that's yuck, you don't spit it out, make a big to-do out of it," Staley said.

A quick swig of cold lemon water cleanses the palate, then it's off to the next cake or cookie.

Staley was judging angel food cakes on Tuesday morning, and the entries were all across the quality spectrum.

"That's one of the best cakes that I've tasted in quite a while," she said, pointing across the room.

Others were found wanting. "That one down there is a box cake. That's a no-no," she said.

Judges are on the lookout for people who take shortcuts.

"If you make one at home it'll split just like a pound cake -- evenly," she said. Store-bought cakes have a tell-tale signature.

"If you pick it up and sniff it, it'll smell like a box," she said, pointing back down at the offending cake. "One of them is turned upside down and it should be the other way."

Air pockets inside angel food reveal a multitude of hidden kitchen sins, she said.

For example, "if anybody is smoking in the kitchen where they bake, it'll pick up the smoke," she said.

Judges look at the flavor, consistency and how well each cake conforms to the standard set out each year before the fair. But their job is more than just picking a winner.

It's also explaining to the fair's leadership why each winner went home with a blue ribbon.

"They're the ones that have to take the question. You'd better have someone who paid attention and can give them an answer," she said.

Questions from competitors were so frequent and heated that Staley began teaching fair judges how to do their job. She's been leading classes for more than a decade.

"I got tired of people coming in and asking, 'How are those people qualified to judge my stuff? I didn't get a blue ribbon,'" she said.

Judges do have to pick winners, but they also get to see the unadulterated joy that comes from some entries, said Julie Ashby, of Berryville, who was judging photos on Tuesday.

While some photographers enter to bring home a blue ribbon, others just want to make people smile.

Some grandparents "entered a picture of a grandchild, just so the child could come and look at it," Ashby said.

"This is the busiest place at the fair," she said. "And everybody is grinning, that's so great."

The fair continues through Saturday.

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