Food contests at local and state fairs date back to the 1800s, and they’re not just small potatoes. When Mel LeMane won a State Fair of Texas Best in Show prize for his black-eyed pea recipe in the early '80s, he followed up with a concession business at the fair. A restaurant followed, and Po Melvin’s, now run by his son Melvin, is still flourishing today in Irving.
With opening day less than 100 days away, the lineup for this year’s amateur cooking contests has been released. The Big Tex BBQ & Chili Challenge and other live cook-offs won’t be held in 2021 due to COVID-19, but you’ll still have plenty of opportunities to win some bragging rights and cash prizes.
If you’ve battled for a blue ribbon before, this is your reminder that it’s time to start planning your prize-winning entries. If the creative arts competitions have been on your radar, use this as a primer for how the competitions work and how to enter.
Where to Start
You’ll probably want to start by perusing the full list of cooking contests on BigTex.com to see which ones are a fit for your favorite recipes or signature dish. Then make plans to go to the fair (or at least drop off your dish) that day.
There’s no limit to how many contests you can enter. A season pass is a great idea if you’re determined to be the next celebrity chef discovered at the fair.
The bread contest on Friday, Oct. 8, is sure to be competitive with plenty of pandemic-inspired sourdough creations. The stakes are high with a special Best of Show prize of $200 awarded by Big Tex himself.
Organizers have wisely scheduled both the Tex-Mex and Cooking With Cheese contests on the same day (Thursday, Oct. 14), and there are about a dozen more themed contests to choose from.
Once you’ve picked a category, download the 2021 Creative Arts Cooking Handbook to see the classes within each category. This is where the fun starts.
Pick a Category and Class
Every category has multiple classes and you can enter up to six classes per contest. For example, the cake contest (Saturday, Sept. 25) has entry classes for yellow, white, spice and carrot layer cakes, five types of bundt and loaf cakes, cupcakes, upside-down cakes, gluten-free cakes and more. There’s not a category for chocolate cakes though, because you’ll enter those in the chocolate contest held the next Monday.
Another fun option is the Black Jar/Polished Jar Honey Contest, which is a honey contest for beekeepers with no entry fee and no cash prizes. Along with a supply of honey from the Texas Beekeepers Association, all entries will be donated to the Happy Hill Children’s Farm.
Contest rules are pretty straightforward, but you definitely want to read them carefully and plan ahead. Register online to avoid the morning-of, in-person registration.
To register, you’ll need to set up an account, and then you’ll have a nifty dashboard that’s great for managing all your entries. If your kids want to enter, you can add them as contestants on your dashboard.
Check your handbook or online dashboard for specifics, but most contests are $2 per entry. There’s no entry fee for the Youth Cooking Contest (Saturday, Oct. 16), but cash prizes are still awarded.
Prizes (You Won't Earn an Early Retirement)
Prizes for most contests are $5 for third place, $10 for second, $15 for the blue ribbon and $200 for best in show. Larger cash prizes are offered for the Texas Pecan Challenge and the honey contest, so check those out if you’re money motivated.
Once you’ve registered, type up your recipe according to the handbook guidelines and make plans to take your dish to the fair. On contest day, judging starts at 10:30 a.m. with the winners announced immediately following.
Super competitors who enter multiple contests earn points toward the fair’s Best Competitor Award, which nets the winner a cool $1,000.
For inspiration, look to the Best in Show Cookbook, with an assortment of recipes that have taken home top prizes over the last decade. The cookbook will start shipping in August, and you can order your copy now on the State Fair of Texas website. While you're waiting for the book to arrive, you can view dozens of ribbon-winning recipes on the website as well.