Stepping into the kitchen to create a dish can take a certain level of confidence. You must have confidence that the recipe will turn out right and that the ingredients won’t have gone to waste. For some, this assurance comes with years of practice; for others it is a natural skill. What truly takes guts, though, is letting a creation be judged, not only by those who gather around the dining table but by folks who really know their stuff. While to some this level of confidence may seem baffling, year after year South Carolinians carry platters of biscuits, jars of pickled Certified SC produce, cakes, and cookies to the South Carolina State Fair to be judged, awarded ribbons, and then publicly displayed for all to see during the month of October.
Blue-ribbon winner and Columbia native Whitney Harrison says she is inspired by South Carolina tradition and a unique inheritance in the form of a secret pound cake recipe. “The recipe is my grandfather’s,” says Whitney, granddaughter of Mendel Boykin. “He was from the Columbia area, and one day asked for a good pound cake recipe from a family friend who lived down the street from him.”
After playing around with the recipe a bit and making it his own, his creativity and confidence led him to the South Carolina State Fair in the 1960s. “He loved experimenting with his neighbor’s basic recipe. In so doing, he figured out the perfect balance of flavoring and often came up with fun and different combinations.” Fortunately for Whitney and the judges who have had the pleasure of trying her cakes year after year, her grandfather passed that recipe down.
When it comes to South Carolina State Fair traditions today, calls of “meet your mother at the rocket” echo in the ears of many South Carolinians, and visions of Ferris wheel rides and Fiske Fries with Williams-Brice Stadium looming in the background come to mind. While these modern callbacks keep us coming back year after year, the fair has a long history in the Palmetto State, with origins stretching back to the 1700s.
These early fairs focused on agriculture, but in 1869 the first official statewide fair, held on Elmwood Avenue, also recognized the importance of industrial development and incorporated that focus into its mission. In 1904, the State Fair established its current location on Rosewood Drive. Throughout the history of agricultural fairs in South Carolina, competitive events similar to the ones today gave locals the chance to vie for top recognition in crops, livestock, and homemaking.
The homemaking competitive events live on, and today they are referred to as the Home and Craft competitions. Fairgoers will find Whitney’s pound cakes alongside other culinary creations from around the state. For over a century, hundreds of South Carolinians have gathered their gumption and submitted their work to be judged.
General Manager of the South Carolina State Fair Nancy Smith says, “It’s a family affair and generations participate.” When coming from a long line of home cooks with secret recipes, that gumption is baked in, so to speak.
“Our families would make the pound cake for special events, and it’s something we do for holidays and birthdays,” says Whitney. After growing up with her grandfather’s pound cake and hearing tales of his State Fair success, Whitney decided it was time for her family to make a comeback. “In 2013, one of my cousins and I decided that we wanted to enter again to see if we could carry on the family tradition of winning another blue ribbon.” And win they did.
Those wins go beyond personal pride though. “The competitive part of the State Fair is special because it speaks to what the fair is all about,” says Nancy. With the fair’s roots in promoting and supporting South Carolina’s agriculture, the Home and Craft competitions further that mission by incorporating local goods. “Less than 2 percent of families are in farming now,” says Nancy, “but this is a way we can keep agriculture alive. People are growing their own crops and using local ingredients in what they submit.”
As one might expect, with that level of investment in their submissions, South Carolinians take the competition seriously. “People look forward to it and take pride,” says Nancy. “It’s more than entering it, you’ve got to get it just right since it’s going to be on display. The events give visitors the chance to see what our folks can do.”
In fact, Nancy says that the South Carolina State Fair’s Home and Craft competitions stand out among fairs across the nation. “We have one of the largest home and craft areas throughout the states that is very well displayed. It’s a big part of who we are and what we do.”
Before the baked, pickled, and preserved can be displayed though, they first must be judged. While the process may sound daunting, Whitney, who has submitted cakes almost every year for a decade, insists that the statewide comaraderie is worth a little pressure.
“Beginning in July you can register to compete for free, and as part of the process you select your particular category,” says Whitney. “Five different pound cake categories are offered, but hundreds of others are available from which to pick from if baking cakes isn’t for you. A few days before the fair begins, you get a card with a time to drop off your entries.” From there, it is all in the judges’ hands.
Like the contestants, judges come from across South Carolina. “Judges are involved with 4-H or have some skill in baking or home economics. We’ve had chefs, celebrities, and generally people who know food,” says Nancy. For the baking portion of competitive events, judging is done in pairs.
Rules for submitting can be found on the South Carolina State Fair’s website, with a few items of note. Products in the food category must be prepared for consumption, and they have strict presentation requirements. Contestants can lose points for not following these guidelines. If submitting a cake, like Whitney, the rubric states that the baked goods will be judged based on appearance, frosting/filling, texture, and of course, flavor. When preparing to submit her cakes to the fair, Whitney prepares two cakes for each category before picking the perfect one to send off to the fair.
“Generally, I have a preference as I put them into the oven based on the taste of the batter,” says the blue-ribbon winner, “but I do wait to make my final selection until after the cakes cool — accounting for coloring as well as texture.” From the submissions, judges can choose to give out multiple first and second place awards in each category or even choose not to give awards if they do not feel that any of the submissions warrant a ribbon.
Attendees of the State Fair may have noticed that often the cakes at the Home and Craft exhibits are cut in half. While this gives visitors a chance to see what the judges see, it’s also an opportunity for the South Carolina State Fair to make an impact on the Columbia community. Nancy says that on the day of judging, baked goods are divided in half. Just a slice or so from one half goes to the judges for tasting, while the other half is boxed up and sent to a local charity.
With the assurance that they’re helping the community and supporting South Carolina agriculture, perhaps a bit of the pressure of being judged is lessened for potential contestants. Even after years of participating in the competitive events, Whitney claims that she still does not think of herself as much of a baker.
But the chance to join in on tradition and build South Carolina’s legacy has proven to be enough of an inspiration to persevere. “Until 2013, my cousin and I had always assisted in making our family’s pound cake, and that first year of baking solo, we actually started a small fire in my oven. After an inspection and some quality cheering and support from the Devine Street Fire Station, we got back to work. The cakes thankfully turned out just right and won a blue ribbon, despite the comedy of errors. It’s a sign of a fool-proof recipe.”
Much like the South Carolina State Fair, Whitney shares the wins with her community. “Instead of baking during the holiday season, I give cakes to family and friends in October to celebrate the fair and to share a piece of my family’s tradition. I make about 50 to 75 cakes in October to give away.”
In total, Whitney estimates that she has made around 1,500 pound cakes over the past 10 years. While hers, along with many of the recipes used in the annual Home and Craft competitions, are kept in the family, sharing a slice of South Carolina history and pride is plenty satisfying. Beyond promoting South Carolina’s agriculture, Nancy says that the competitive Home and Craft events are part of the fair tradition for families across the state. “That’s the thing that impresses me about the fair; it’s a tradition.”