The California State Fair is returning after a three year Covid hiatus. I have long been a participant in the fair, sometimes as a 4-H parent, an entrant in the baking competitions, and as part of the California Authors Booth. The return of the Fair has resurrected many memories; one in particular I feel the need to tell again…this time in an abridged version.
Many more years ago than I care to count, I found myself in the midst of yet another marathon day at the Fur and Feathers building at the California State Fair. My daughter was waist deep in the 4-H Rabbit Show and though she was young enough that I needed to be present, she didn’t need me in the middle of it all. The building was hot and stuffy and I’d had enough of air filled with rabbit fur sticking to eyelashes, clothes, and well, just about everything. I told my daughter I was going to stroll around the other exhibit buildings clustered in the area and made sure another friend and fellow 4-H parent would keep an eye out.
I strolled through the Hall of Flowers and the Industrial Arts Building but soon found myself inside the building housing the food competitions. The judging was already in progress so I quietly took a seat and tried to figure out what was going on. The ins and outs of the judging process are only pertinent to this story as they related to my subjects. This is the story of, as I named them, Aint Bee #1 and Aint Bee #2.
As an aside, I remember watching The Andy Griffith Show as a kid. Aunt Bee, who with Andy’s pronounced accent became Aint Bee, was Andy’s aunt and the small-town, woman-of-the-heartland that cleaned, sewed, and cooked up a mess of the best food anyone has ever had. Therefore my story’s protagonists had to carry on the name.
The food judging is arranged solely by entry number; there is no identification of any sort allowed on the items entered nor is anyone allowed to speak up and identify themselves as the maker. In a short amount of time, however, it became quite clear to me which items had been created by Aint Bee #1 and Aint Bee #2. As items were carried from the storage room to the judges, when a particular item made an appearance Bees #1 or #2 would puff up like peacocks and assume an almost imperceptible air of smugness. It was clear to me they saw themselves as the matriarchs of this thing; the ones to beat, a force to be reckoned with and to their way of thinking, every other competitor was simply an also ran. It was also abundantly clear that Bees #1 and #2 held the same opinion of each other that they held of the rest of the field. There was obviously no love lost between the Bees.
The category being judged at my inaugural exposure to the Bees was Muffins. The judges wear wireless headsets so the audience can hear their comments, good and bad, as well as the final score given on each item. From their vantage points on the far left and far right of the spectator seating (because obviously their loathing of each other precluded any close proximity) Bees #1 and #2 smiled empathetically, nodded knowingly, and tut-tutted as the offering of other competitors came before the judges.
The first round was judged by what is called the Danish System, whereby any entry scoring 90 or above received a blue ribbon, 80-89, a second, and so on. After the first round, all the outstanding entries returned for Best of Class, Best of Division and Best of Show placement. It was evident the Bees believed this first round of Danish scoring was a formality; their blue ribbons a forgone conclusion. But that is where things went horribly wrong…at least for Bee #2.
Bee #1’s entry in the Muffin class had already been brought forth and given a score of 100. (I never said these ladies couldn’t bake.) The 100 meant that Bee #1’s muffins would advance to the “best of” rounds and though you could see the consternation on the face of Bee #2, there was also a steely look of determination in her eyes that said she knew she was up to receiving the same score and hence furthering the rivalry.
We in the audience had escaped disaster when, upon hearing her 100 score, Bee #1’s blouse buttons, already strained beyond the normal laws of physics, threated to break free and fly throughout the exhibit hall as she swelled with pride. Against all odds, they held.
But now there was a stirring on Bee #2’s side of the room as from the back, her entry of Blueberry Muffins appeared. The rules have changed since but these were the days of presentation…presentation…presentation. Almost as much time was spent on the display as was spent baking the entry. Bee #2 didn’t disappoint. I could only assume she thought the All-American theme was perfect as the muffins were placed in front of the judge in a lovely basket draped with a red, white and blue cloth. The handle of the basket sported a large red white and blue bow and tucked around the edges of the basket were red, white and blue Mylar picks resembling fireworks.
Almost instantly as the basket was placed in front of the judge, he looked down and said immediately, “I can’t judge this.” He turned to the scribe recording all his utterances on the score sheet and said, “Disqualified.”
Bee #2’s side of the room sat in stunned silence while Bee #1 looked ready to dance like Mrs. Doubtfire with a vacuum cleaner. The judge elaborated on his decision for the audience. It seemed along with the other decorations Bee #2 had included red, white and blue Mylar confetti. She had sprinkled it about the cloth but in the handling, it had migrated to some of the muffins. The rules are quite explicit that the food be free of foreign objects; hair, bugs, and as it turns out, Mylar confetti. Bee #2 was bereft and I have to admit returning to the Fur and Feathers building shortly after the turn of events that were either disastrous or fantastic depending on which Bee you happened to be(e) was necessary before I began to laugh uncontrollably and couldn’t stop.
In the succeeding several decades I have entered some of my own baking and had my share of winners, also-rans, and even a Best of Show. I don’t stay for the judging and usually read the results online, so I’ve yet to identify newer versions of the Bees. I am. however, confident they are there. As to the original Bees #1 and #2, they were still present and ‘battling to the death’ for the first few years I competed but now are long gone. I only hope through all the drama they were able to gain some enjoyment from the process because I thoroughly enjoyed watching them.