A dozen unlabeled jars of freshly made, dark-purple jelly sit on a counter in Jane Radford's kitchen. Arranged in three rows, they appear identical, but they're not.
Turns out there are four each of grape, cherry and red raspberry. Radford shines a flashlight from behind each sealed jar to check for "clutter," like fruit pieces or air pockets that could scratch a jelly from competition. As she does, slight variations in their jewel-like colors can be detected.
The homemade jellies appear on the detailed spread sheet the Clarksville resident prints out each year to keep track of the dozens of items she plans to cook or bake for the upcoming Howard County Fair. This time around she has 82 entries in the works.
"Some people think I'm crazy, but I really love doing this," said Radford, a chief financial officer and self-proclaimed workaholic by day who's in her 10th year of competition.
The 67th annual edition of the fair will begin Saturday, Aug. 4, and run through Aug. 11 at the West Friendship Fairgrounds. About 100,000 people are expected to turn out to enjoy the farm animals, antique tractor pull, 4-H demonstrations, midway rides, Farm Queen crowning and so much more.
While not action-packed crowd-pleasers like the skid-loader rodeo or the horse-pulling contest, the home arts competitions are still intense events of a different sort that call to Radford each summer.
Results of the judging, "when all those glorious ribbons appear," can be seen by fair goers starting Sunday morning, she said.
From among such home arts categories as needle arts, woodworking, photography and flower arranging, Radford is especially drawn to food preservation, which can be done ahead, as well as baked foods and candies, for which she serves as the fair's department co-chair.
She prepares all of her entries in her home's small, U-shaped kitchen with a single oven. Of the three jellies she recently made, only the grape and red raspberry ended up meeting her exacting standards and one jar of each flavor will be entered. Her cherry jelly failed to set, though, and won't pass muster.
"Sometimes, no matter what you do, it just doesn't jell," she said with a shrug, tipping a jar and observing the loose liquid shift inside. No matter; she'll soon add apple, peach and elderberry flavors to the mix.
Radford, 54, is never sidetracked for long by failure, nor unnerved by the enormity of the task she takes on each July despite a demanding career. If she were, she wouldn't she have won 515 ribbons for her 560 entries over the last decade
She's planning to write a book called "A Thousand Ribbons" when she hits that milestone, combining her awards from the county and state fairs, which have topped 830. In it she hopes to describe her journey and include award-winning recipes.
'If I can do it, anybody can'
Yet, she also feels her kitchen failures have nearly as great an upside as her successes because they demonstrate that expertise isn't needed to enter. She's proof that determination and a can-do attitude go a long way, she said.
"People think it's a science, but it's also an art form and you learn from your mistakes," said Radford, who has three grown children with her husband of 27 years, Bill. "If I can do it, anybody can."
Radford has three times claimed the Howard County Times Cup, an engraved silver bowl that is awarded annually to the resident who earns the most points through overall home arts entries. She says she's "become addicted" to entering since first winning a ribbon in 2003 for her apricot-habanero jam.
She goes through at least 100 pounds of sugar, 20 pounds of butter and 22 pounds of nuts in the weeks leading up to the Howard County Fair and the Maryland State Fair, which kicks off Aug. 24.
This year she has pickled watermelon rind, concocted raspberry vinegar, and molded chocolate crabs for the blue crab theme. Her blueberry muffins have a decadent berry-lemon topping that she hopes will set them apart.
Like a laboratory scientist, Radford meticulously measures each filled jar's head space, which is the volume left at the top before sealing. No eyeballing for her. Since that gap allows the contents to swell a bit and prevents discoloration, she wants to be sure that each of her entries is precisely canned.
Holding up a 16-ounce jar of squash and zucchini that she packed to resemble vertical stripes by alternating the green and yellow spears, she exclaimed softly, "Oh, that is so neat."
Keeping foods' natural colors is "one of the hardest things to do," but so important, she said, while also assessing a blend of yellow and orange peppers nestled in a jar.
"When you look at all the entries you get the full concept of the history of the fair" and the county's agricultural roots, she said of the exhibition of entries. "You can judge for yourself their quality and freshness, and understand the care that went into preparing them."
Abby Glassberg, Radford's co-chair of baked foods and candies, calls her friend "the Energizer bunny" of the fair for her passionate efforts.
"Jane is an awesome competitor, and she's extremely generous with her time and her recipes," said Glassberg, a commercial real estate broker who also lives in Clarksville. She works with Radford to manage, but not judge, their department's entries with assistance from her husband, Fred Staines, and twin daughters, Sylvie and Isabelle Staines.
Ready for a challenge
While Radford loves serving as an unofficial ambassador for the home arts program, she readily admits she craves a challenge.
"I like to compete and see if I'm any good, so bring it on," she said with a broad smile, issuing her usual dare to competitors.
Yet, there's nothing even remotely cutthroat about her approach; quite the contrary. She regularly divulges her canning tips and baking secrets, happy to create a level playing field.
Want to enhance the taste of your baked goods and candies? Her "weapon of choice" is essential oils that come in a vast array of flavors like clove and marshmallow.
Can't keep your apples from browning? Sprinkle them with Vitamin C powder before canning. Her advice comes from years of competing as well as the 500-plus cookbooks she has amassed since she first became more deeply interested in cooking 20 years ago.
"It's all part of my OCD," she said, joking about having obsessive-compulsive disorder when it comes to her preoccupation with her entries.
Radford loves everything about the home arts process except eating her wares, she said. She samples everything she enters, of course, but resists temptation to eat the leftovers and gives most of them away.
One recipient of her experiments is her office, Hamel Builders, an Elkridge-based construction company.
"We kid her a lot about all the work she puts into the fair," said Ed Hamel, chairman of the board, adding she has the manic energy of a Chihuahua. "But she does a great job for the community and we really enjoy sampling her recipes."
Radford, who is also a certified judge, acknowledges she's a workaholic, both on the job and during fair season.
"I just love all of the agricultural components of the fair," she said. "It's just a perfect event."
And, what about those jars of cherry jelly that didn't turn out?
In true make-lemonade-from-lemons mindset, she will use them in other recipes as simple syrup or as an ice cream topping. Problem solved.