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Tri-Valley Foodist: Exploring food contests at the Alameda County Fair

A non-alcoholic pina colada from Pineapple Grill, a West Coast Weenies dragon dog and Letty Villalobis, winner of Alameda County Fair Dutch Oven Cooking contest, with her family.

At the Alameda County Fair, I can’t advise on the scariest carnival rides. But I can suggest nibbling on pastrami fries or a musubi snack, cheering for Sourdough Jack at the Alaskan pig races, or checking out the poetry and art exhibit.

For a change of pace this year, I asked for directions to Building C to see the food exhibits. I recently received Liza Gershman’s book, “County Fair: Nostalgic Blue Ribbon Recipes from America’s Small Towns.” The first line of Gershman’s book resonated with me: “I am, and have always been, a chronicler of vanishing things.”

I wondered, with the endless parade of food videos on TikTok and Instagram along with ubiquitous food delivery and prepared supermarket meals, if the Fair’s homemade food entries were a disappearing element of our county fair.

Kari Estabrook, the Fair Entries Coordinator, resolved any doubt about flagging interest in the baked goods component of food competitions. Estabrook observed entries grow during the 2000s and are now close to pre-pandemic levels. The first period for the baked food competitions was 6 percent higher than the total of the two periods last year—and entries for this year’s second period were due June 25th.

“Now we use digital media to attract new entrants for baked, decorated and preserved food and other contests,” added Estabrook.

I marveled at the 10 categories of baked food competitions. Bread alone has four subcategories depending on use of yeast and shape. Though many of my friends and neighbors are excellent cooks, I only recall Judie Lawrence of Pleasanton being involved with a winning loaf. Lawrence shyly noted there weren’t many bread entries that year, but she had posted the challah with its awards on Facebook.

You can always expect to see a merry-go-round and turkey legs at the Fair. The original mission of county and state fairs was to showcase the area’s agricultural prowess. The first Fair was held in 1912, long before gluten free became the mainstream food category present in today’s competition.

A vestige of the past lies in the name given to the Still Exhibits section of the three major Fair competitions. The Still Exhibits competition includes the crafts and food items exhibited in Building C, signposted as “Made by Hand.”

The most popular food entries are consistently cookies and banana breads which don’t wiggle around like the baby rabbits housed in Building P labeled “Little Critters,” part of the Small Animals and Livestock competitions. Exhibited in the “Wines, Vines and Blooms” Building Q, Wine and Homebrew is the third competition.

I also leaned into learning about the Fair’s cooking competitions.

In contrast to the stomach-churning-to-watch Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest held before huge crowds at the Grandstand Stage, the cooking competitions are set in the shaded area next to the concert amphitheater across from a Ferris wheel and food stands.

I asked to observe the non-public judging of the Dutch Oven Contest. The two cooking competitions, the Beef is King and the Dutch Oven contests, attract talented Bay Area cooks and are sponsored by the Alameda County CattleWomen, affiliated with the Calif. CattleWomen group whose aim is the promotion of beef and the ranching lifestyle.

Letty Isabel Villalobos of San Jose won first place for her beef birria tacos entrée. Excited barely describes the home cook. “I am 50, and this is the first time I’ve entered a cooking contest. And I won first prize,” said Villalobos with a big smile.

For Villalobos, the competition meant more than the $100 prize. “I enjoy cooking with Dutch ovens because the method mimics our Mexican tradition of underground cooking with beef, goat and lamb.”

The live cooking competitions are not for lazy cooks. Entrants must bring all the equipment and ingredients for their entry. The Villalobos family arrived at 9:00 a.m. with her family to set up, chop and stir ingredients for the birria and present to the judges by 12:30 p.m. The Alameda CattleWomen judges took nearly 45 minutes to select the winners with the highest ratings applied to appearance, quality and originality.

Villalobos wasn’t the only winner in the family. Her daughter Jasmin Martinez won first-place for her snickerdoodle cookies in the Youth Baked Food, cookies category.

“I’m always the sous-chef to Mom, but I like to bake. I entered using my cousin’s recipe and won my first competition ever,” said Martinez. Food contest judges include restaurant and educator chefs, pastry shop owners, caterers, and sponsors of special contests as Guittard Chocolate.

Winners usually have a secret ingredient. When asked about her unique touch, Martinez replied it was the homemade vanilla the family crafted during the pandemic. Though the exhibits don’t offer money awards, winners receive a free ticket to the Fair.

You can judge the popular Fair foods by the length of lines at the booths.

My biggest discovery was the only food truck at the Fair, newly launched, Livermore-based Musubi Libre. Owner Leonard Lopez explained the importance of musubi (moo-sue’-bee) as a Hawaiian snack. Musubi is like sushi, but spam is the main ingredient wrapped around seaweed. Lopez offers the straightforward spam version on his specially seasoned rice plus Korean-spiced radish on spam, Portuguese sausage, and a plant-based option which was spam-like and not too salty.

A great advantage of Musubi Libre is the price of each piece—only $5.50. The food prices at the Fair have risen, following the overall increase in restaurant food prices. I took a bite out of a veggie corn dog and a dragon dog which had a stick of melted cheddar in the middle and siracha sauce on top. Both cost about the same as a regular hot dog at about $20.

I was attracted to the new Grinders sandwich booth since grinders are the East Coast take on hot or cold subs. Popular picks include the angry chicken sandwich and pastrami fries. I shared the latter with a friend who helped demolish the fries as we grappled over the last pieces of meat which were not overcooked or too fatty.

As for liquid refreshment, we shared a non-alcoholic piña colada with a splash of pineapple slushie in a big, cored pineapple at the new-to-the-Fair Pineapple Grill. Cool tip: On a hot day, the cold pineapple is a hand-cooling device; take napkins for the drips. Also, on Thursdays some Fair booths offer $3.00 food bites until 5:00 p.m.

After leafing through the beautiful photos and recipes in the “County Fair” book, I asked Sonoma-based author Gershman for her impression of the Alameda County Fair. “It is the perfect example of how fairs can help bridge community gaps and showcase handcrafted and agricultural expertise from those whose lives may be primarily suburban and whose neighbors may not know their hidden talent for baking, basket weaving, or pig raising.”

I add art to Gershman's list—what a treat to see my teenage neighbor Nirnaya Botlagunta winning the youth first prize for her painting.

Will I enter future food competitions? I doubt it, but I’ll check out the diverse handmade goods at the Fair.

Editor's note: "Tri-Valley Foodist" is a new blog for Embarcadero Media by Pleasanton-based culinary writer Deborah Grossman.

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