Big Tex is back, the Texas Star Ferris wheel is spinning, and corny dogs are in high demand. For many families, loading up the kids in the car and heading to Fair Park each fall is a ritual. Where else are you gonna get your funnel cake fix?

But in addition to just attending (and noshing on some fried Twinkies), plenty of folks in our neighborhood kick that tradition up a notch. They actually participate in the many different kinds of State Fair events, such as cooking contests, parades and even judging the culinary adventure known as cooking with Spam.

We’ve talked to a few of them to find out what they do, and, well – particularly in the case of the Spam judge – why they do it.

THREE’S COMPANY

“If you are going to the Fair, you might as well enter something,” says neighborhood resident J.J. Pair.

Pair has been entering contests at the State Fair of Texas for about 20 years. She has entered jams, pies, a Spam invention called “Spushi” and even a piece of pottery.

Her very first competition was the Pecan Pie “Bake It There” contest in 1984.

“I thought it would be fun to do. I’d never even baked a pecan pie…but I thought, what the hell?” she laughs, adding that she practiced for the contest by baking pies for unsuspecting friends.

“My husband was there at the contest taking pictures. I had flour everywhere, all over me.”

Despite her inexperience, Pair received an honorable mention in that competition and has gone on to win many more ribbons.

One of her most memorable moments was when she won first place for her blackberry jam.

“I was very proud…it was one of the first things I pre-entered. When I took it down – I’ll never forget – there were women there with cases and cases of jams, and I was there with my one little jar. But I won! I got the blue ribbon,” she says. “That was fun, knowing at the onset that my competition was stiff.”

Although winning is exciting, Pair says it’s being able to enter the contests with her friends that has kept her participating all these years.

Since 1989, Pair and friend Susan McIntosh have entered the same contests together. Last year, their friend Ron Miles joined them, taking home a first place ribbon for his Sloppy Joes.

“It’s a tradition at this point,” Pair says. “I’ve been doing it so long. I want to get my seven-year-old to start entering. And it really is the one time my friend and I get together. It’s a big day for us – we get to catch up on our lives.”

A FAMILY AFFAIR

A little more than five years ago, neighborhood resident Susan Bruck was at her family place west of Dallas staring at a cactus.

“I just kept looking at the cactus plants thinking they have to have some redeeming factor,” she says.

So she went online and found a recipe to make cactus jelly. Having never made jelly before, Bruck closely followed the instructions and luckily, she says, it gelled the first time.

“I think if it hadn’t, I would have bailed,” she says.

Bruck continued to master her recipe for the cactus jelly, and at the urging of her two sons, Brian, 14, and Rhett, 11, she decided to enter it in the State Fair competition – on one condition:

“I said, ‘Oh, I’ll enter my jelly, but you have to enter, too.’”

The boys were happy to oblige, and for the past several years, the three family members have entered – and won – State Fair contests.

“Growing up, my sister always entered her art at the fair in South Carolina. I always thought that was something I wanted to do,” Bruck says. “Now, I’m part of the team.”

Last year, she took home a first place ribbon for her cactus jelly. She also has entered a mesquite bean jelly (she found the recipe while researching cactus jelly), and this year, she entered hot cactus jelly, made from cactus juice and hot peppers.

In addition to helping mom out by picking the (very prickly) cactus fruit for her jelly, Brian and Rhett both enter a drawing or a painting each year and a hand-modeled clay item.

And they’re not getting out of it anytime soon, Bruck says.

“There are some ladies at the Fair who expect the boys to show up each year.”

Bruck says participating is fun for her whole family – she’s even trying to get her husband, Bill, to enter something, as well as her stepchildren, and anyone else she can convince, for that matter.

“It just adds another element to fall and the Fair,” she says, “another way to be part of it.”

DREAM JOB: SPAM JUDGE

For neighborhood resident Frank Wood Jr., being a judge for the Fair’s Creative Arts department can be a little like being in an episode of “Fear Factor.”

That’s because he’s one of the judges for the National “Best Spam Recipe” Competition.

Wood has been a Spam judge for about five years now, and he has seen and tasted everything from “Spambalaya” to “Spam Tetrazzini” to last year’s winner, “Pig in a Cloud” – a concoction of pineapple, marshmallows, coconut, cherries and of course, Spam.

“Kind of makes you shudder,” Wood admits. “Fortunately for me, I usually get the entrees. When you get into the salads and the gelatins is where it gets a little suspect.”

Wood’s Spam judging career began as a dream. No, really.

“My best friend in the world was also my roommate at Baylor. We were sitting around talking one day saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we became this or that?’ and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we became State Fair judges?’”

But the dream fell by the wayside, and the two friends never did anything about it. They graduated from college, were married and started families.

One year, unbeknownst to him, Wood’s wife decided to enter a stocking she had made for him in one of the State Fair’s competitions. Wood says his wife thought it would be an incentive for him to get a move on realizing his dream.

Sure enough, it was.

She took him to look at the stockings, and he immediately recognized the one she had made.

“I said, ‘Now I’m motivated. If my wife can win 2nd place in the State Fair of Texas, then I can make my dream happen.’”

So Wood started e-mailing and calling the fair’s Creative Arts center. He finally got a call back from the director, who told him all the judging positions were full, except one: Oven Roasted Turkey Spam.

Wood jumped at the opportunity, even though he admits he never even knew that kind of Spam existed.

“I said, ‘I’ll do it, no problem. Sign me up. I’m in.’”

So Wood finally got his chance to be a State Fair judge. But unfortunately, his best friend didn’t – at least not yet.

But then, after his first time judging, the Creative Arts department asked Wood if he had any friends who also might like to judge. He recommended his friend, and their dream was finally fulfilled.

Each year, though he has moved up the ranks enough to judge other contests, such as canning, barbecue, and even chocolate, Wood returns to the Spam stadium.

“It’s such a fun way to participate in something I have enjoyed since I was a kid.”

The Fair, he means, not eating crazy Spam creations.

The State Fair of Texas runs through Sunday, Oct. 23. For information on specific times and dates of events, visit bigtex.com If you’d like a sneak peak at the Visitors Guide for the State Fair, which we produce for the Fair and which includes a comprehensive list of daily events for all 25 days of the Fair, visit our website at advocatemag.com.