Well-removed from Big Tex and the Midway, past the Cotton Bowl, sits the Creative Arts Building at Fair Park. While it’s not the State Fair of Texas’ sexiest attraction, the sweeping structure is a hub for a relatively unknown subculture: the competitors.
Competitions at the State Fair are aplenty. Among the arts and crafts contests: painting, sketching, needlepoint and Lego architecture. Food-contest categories feature baking with KARO syrup, chili, chocolate, relish, jam, SPAM creations, bread baking and cooking with cheese, to name a few. Collections contest categories run the gamut from apothecary items and thimbles to sports memorabilia and pipes. There are fashion-design contests and diorama competitions. The list goes on and on. We tracked down several neighborhood residents who, through experience, understand the spirit of State Fair rivalry.
Ask the Ramirez boys (Tino, 11; Alex, 10, and Tomas, 6) what comes to mind when they think of the State Fair of Texas, and the consensus is “Big Tex.”
But this year, when Alex, a fourth-grader at St. Patrick’s Catholic School, entered his impressive drawing of an eagle in the fair’s junior art contest, they imagine what it might be like to see his artwork on display at such a big event.
“I would be really proud,” Alex says. “It would be kind of strange to have everybody looking at his art,” his older brother, Tino, chimes in, “but really great, too.”
Alex is obsessed with eyes these days, his family says. He will sit at the dining table and draw eyes and more eyes until you walk in and dozens of pairs of eyes are staring up at you, they say. Sometimes Alex declines to play because he’s drawing, his brothers say, shaking their heads.
This still might be better than his “origami phase,” mom Kelly Ramirez says. At that time, the family was drowning in tiny pieces of paper.
The artistic genes come from dad Tino Sr., whose pastel watercolor paintings are displayed throughout the Ramirezes’ Moss Haven-area home. The eyes, which Alex learned to draw from a YouTube video, are the centerpiece of his eagle sketch.
“The eagle has interesting eyes, so that’s why I wanted to draw an eagle,” he says.
An art teacher at the Ridgewood Belcher recreation center recommended the State Fair contest to the family. Though they visit the State Fair yearly, Kelly Ramirez says she wasn’t aware of the “contest subculture” until she visited the Creative Arts Building to drop off Alex’s drawing, she says.
“It is just row after row of tables — beading, ceramics, needlepoint, paintings and a test kitchen for the cooking contests in the middle of it all.”
For the Pittmans and much of their extended family, the State Fair of Texas is not just an annual tradition. It’s a way of life.
Kelly Pittman, an art teacher at Scofield Christian School in Lake Highlands, has made the Fair’s creative arts contests a family pastime. From the age of 5, daughter Hannah and son Collin entered hobby collections, art and cooking contests.
“It started with Hannah entering a doll. My brother in law, who’s in the military and picked up the doll while traveling the world, gave it to Hannah. We caught the bug that year. We’ve tried a whole scope of things since then. I never knew it would get so big for us,” Kelly says with a laugh.
Hannah’s Best in Show for a ceramic art piece when she was in eighth grade has perhaps been the crowning achievement. Her brother Collin, 13, has placed respectably in the Lego competition.
The real instigator of the family’s State Fair fascination is arguably not Kelly, but rather her mom, Judi Kohcak, now in her 80s, who has an entire half-room of her home dedicated to her fair entries and prizes.
The whole family begins thinking about the State Fair each May, when they receive the contestant handbook by mail. Entries are dropped off at the Creative Arts Building for judging in August, and in September, contestants find out who won. Kohcak usually is the first to know.
“She is at home during the day so she gets the mail first the day they notify the winners,” Pittman says. “She calls us up and says, ‘What’d you get?’”
Because of Pittman’s dedication to the Fair, her husband’s aunt endowed to her a full collection of State Fair Cookbooks, which contain recipes from State Fair food contest winners.
“She said she would leave them to me on the condition that I continue to add to the collection each year. In 2000, I messed up and almost didn’t get one. I cried! They sold out, but luckily, a friend of a friend had bought an extra, and I haven’t missed a year since.”
Though she lives in the heart of Lake Highlands, Lisa Odwyer is a country girl at heart. She works two nursing jobs, yet spends her day off at her farm in Poetry, Texas (a 35-minute drive from the neighborhood), caring for her five horses, two turkeys, 30 or so chickens, five sheep, one longhorn, a donkey, a couple of dogs and cats, and 20-plus goats.
Donning a pair of leather cowboy boots, a gratuity for her State Fair Junior Livestock Committee service, Odwyer kicks open gates and makes her way through the rowdy neighing, cawing crowd of farm animals.
“This is a reprieve for me,” she says. “I can be out here all day long. This is what I enjoy doing.”
Separate from the other animals are three snow-white saanens — dairy goats — one with a blatantly bulging udder. These are the show goats, and in the show, held inside the fairground’s Pan Am Building during the first week of the Fair, it’s all about the udder, Odwyer says.
“It’s about the milking system, the tits, to be blunt. That’s what [the judges] are looking at.” She hopes to enter the heavily lactating Big Mama, also known as Foxy and officially registered as Think Like a Fox, as well as the younger, smaller Briar Bay, nicknamed Botox Beauty (Odwyer works in a plastic surgeon’s office). She hoists Foxy onto a feeding block, and commences milking.
“They can produce as much as two gallons a day.”
As evidence, within moments, she fills a steel bucket with foamy goat’s milk. On the day of the show, Odwyer will dress in all white and strut her goat for the judges. This day, Botox Beauty pulls and hops on the leash. She needs a little practice before the big competition.
“It’s a little like the dog show, but they aren’t judged too much on their behavior,” Odwyer says.
She knows. One of her first State Fair entries, back in the 1970s, was her pair of poodles. She has entered and won State Fair photo contests over the years. She photographs mostly animals.
“Look at all this,” she says, motioning toward two of her rescued wild mustangs. “You can see why I want to take pictures of this. I always carry my camera around the farm.”
Since she won a ribbon for a cake in the early 1980s, Gaynelle Hopton-Jones has been “hooked” on entering State Fair contests.
Compelling evidence: five frames hanging in her Lake Highlands kitchen showcase multiple State Fair prizes, including five coveted Best in Shows.
“That’s the one you really want,” she says.
After the top entries in each category are selected, they are judged to determine Best in Show. It’s the best of the best. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, Hopton-Jones, a retired teacher of 20 years at Hexter Elementary, entered and won ribbons for her pies, cakes, ice cream (see recipe on opposite page), pork tenderloin, potatoes, cookies and stuffing, to name a few. She felt enlivened by the contest culture and the friendly competitive spirit, she says.
“You all sort of knew each other. You knew who your rivals were. You might say to yourself, ‘Oh no! She entered. Well, I have no chance now!’ ” Recently she “backed off the cooking contests and started entering collectables contests,” she says.
“When you get older, those cooking contests start to affect you. Someone has to eat those cakes and pies, and it was starting to show on us,” she teases.
Her husband Fred nods in agreement. The less-fattening hobby collection contests at the State Fair, of which there are 100-plus categories, call for pairs of collectors’ items more than 30 years old. Gay’s husband Fred (unbeknownst to him, initially) took a prize years ago for a Roy Rogers and Dale Evans lunchbox and Thermos set.
“I think it won because of the Thermos. Those are rare because the insides are glass, and kids broke them,” Hopton-Jones says.
Fred, who has collected cowboy memorabilia since childhood, also has won for his Hopalong Cassidy and Gene Autry porcelain plates. In a room upstairs, next door to the cowboys collections room, Hopton-Jones has an impressive collection of pristine antique dolls, teacups and saucers, hats and Brownie items. Several have garnered ribbons.
She credits her mom with teaching her how to collect and maintain precious items. Take the Brownie camping kit, for example.
“She knew this meant something to me, and she preserved it.”
She picks up the little knife, smiles and says she remembers using it as a girl. This year, she entered a couple of antique hats, Cissy and Cissette dolls and a Brownie handbook.
The couple plan to visit the 2012 State Fair, as they do each year, several times.
1986 Best in Show: Spiced Texas Pecan Ice Cream recipe
by Gaynelle Hopton-Jones
5 oz pecan pieces 1/4 tsp cinnamon
1 tbsp egg white 1/8 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tbsp water 1/8 tsp salt
1/4 tsp allspice 1/4 c white sugar
Mix all ingredients except pecans. Blend well. Add pecan pieces and stir until well coated. Coat large baking sheet with cooking spray. Spread pecan mixture on sheet. Bake at 275 for 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes. Remove from oven and cool completely.
Ice cream mixture:
2 1/4 c heavy cream 3 egg yolks
3/4 c whole milk 1 c spiced Texas pecans
3/4 c packed brown sugar
Heat cream, milk and brown sugar in heavy pan, stirring occasionally until sugar dissolves and mixture is hot. Place egg yolks in bowl and whisk briefly. Still whisking, slowly pour in about 1 cup of hot liquid. When mixture is blended, slowly pour it back into liquid in pan, whisking constantly. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens and coats back of spoon, about 8 minutes. Do not let boil. Strain into clean bowl and chill thoroughly. (You can do all of this the day before.) When ready to make ice cream, stir pecans into ice cream mixture and pour into 1 quart ice cream maker to freeze ice cream.
More Lake Highlands Contestants
Gerry Flewharty has entered her gourds in the Texas State Fair and other craft-related contests since 1999. She has since amassed a total of 45 ribbons and 20 first-place blue ribbons. “I participate in three annual shows — the State Fair of Texas, Southwest Gourd Fine Art Show and the Texas Gourd Society’s Lone Star Gourd Show,” she tells us.
Gourds, by the way, are vegetables — members of the cucumber family. A 1995 gourd display in Santa Fe, N.M., inspired Flewharty’s early work, she says. She carves the sturdy squash-esque produce into sculptures and uses them as canvases for ink dyes and paint. From them she has created folk art, masks, purses, miniature animals and Christmas ornaments, to name a few.
Gayle Vaughan claims to be the “Great State Fair of Texas’ biggest fan.” Year after year she enters jams in the Creative Arts competitions. “My best showings were first place for blackberry jam, second place for peach jam and a whole lot of third and honorable mentions,” she says. “My husband and I also buy season passes to the fair, and go probably a dozen times each year. My parents even come down every year from Minnesota just to see one of the greatest state fairs in the country.”
Holly Daiker is a regular submitter to various State Fair contest categories. Possibly the most interesting items, she says, are her antique silver pieces. “The silver comes from my mother’s family, who lived in Maryland. They arrived in this country with William Penn.”
In addition to collectable silver, she has entered antique children’s books. Her first entry and first blue ribbon was for a stitched sampler from 1811.
Vicki Carlisle has been entering contests at the State Fair for about 12 years. “The first year I entered one candy recipe and have added more contests every year. This year I entered two photographs as well as three decorations in the Holiday Corner category. I’m also planning to enter the candy, cookies, pie and cake contests, which are conducted during the fair,” she says.