The tradition of recipe contests is almost as old as the tradition of state fairs themselves. The contests originally showcased the best of locally grown food as well as the best local recipes.
"The original Mid-South Fair was based on agriculture," said Robert Dye, chairman of the fair's historical committee and author of "The Mid-South Fair: Celebrating 150 Years" (Arcadia Publishing, $19.99). "Most of the contests focused on baked goods and canning."
More than 150 years later, delicious and interesting creations are still being entered by both first-time entrants and longtime winners.
"This year we have over 500 entries for our first cooking show," said the fair's culinary arts co-chair Deborah Heath.
The first cooking show, which is being held today (but is not open to the public), features a smorgasbord of home-cooking contests.
"We have over 53 categories within breads, quick breads, cakes and cookies alone," said co-chair Angela Harmon.
Contestants, who can enter more than one category, prepare their goods at home and deliver them to the fair just in time for judging.
For many, preparation for this competition starts months in advance.
Last year's sweepstakes winner, the title for whomever wins more blue ribbons than anyone else, Lisa Crawford Tracy has been participating for 25 years. "I start looking for and adapting recipes months in advance. I have already started cooking. I have several cakes in the freezer."
Like many contestants, Tracy enters almost every competition. "It takes lots of coordination to get everything completed in time. I take the whole week off of work and usually cook for 24 hours straight before driving to the fair."
And why do she and other contestants go to such effort?
"It's like an addiction. It's just so exciting and fun," she said.
"I have been participating since high school," said long time contestant Kathy Fisher. "I got started because I looked at other people's things and thought 'I can do that.' So I did."
Heath attributes the popularity of the fair's cooking contests to "the love of the art" and that it's "good clean family fun."
"We also offer many youth culinary contests," said Heath, "We have children as young as 5.
"Cooking from scratch can bring a mother and a child together. We have one older woman in a wheelchair who comes every year with her daughter, and often wins. She has probably grown up participating in the fair and now they enjoy doing it together."
In recent years, sponsorship of recipe contests by national food companies has become popular at fairs across America, and the Mid-South Fair is no exception.
This year's sponsored contests are divided among two days and are open to the public.
"At these sponsored contests, we have give-aways and trivia questions for the audience," explained Harmon, "There is a great interaction between the stage and the audience."
The companies award prizes for original recipes featuring their products. The prizes may be only $100 or so, but they often offer the chance to compete on a nationwide level for a more generous reward.
"A couple of years ago we had a little boy go on to win a national competition," said Heath.
Both public cooking contests are located in the Creative Arts Building. Judging begins at 1 p.m. and is open to the public.
Friday, Sept. 21
Great American SPAM Championship
Eagle Brand Sweetened Condensed Milk Great Baking Bonanza
KC Masterpiece "Memorable Meals" Recipe Contest
Hidden Valley Dressing "Family Friendly Food Contest"
Tuesday, Sept. 25
Pillsbury Refrigerated Pie Crust Pie Championship
"Stick with Canola Oil, Fry it for the Fair" contest sponsored by CanolaInfo
Fleischmann's Yeast "Bake For The Cure" Contest
"Make It With Malt-O-Meal" Contest