It all started with a plain white cake.
When Tai Linkous was 4 she had her first baking success. Little did she know then that veal scaloppine, coconut coffeecake, homemade hand-dipped chocolates and everything in between would become standards in her recipe repertoire.
"I remember standing on a chair looking in the oven," says Linkous, 61.
And although she hates the word gourmet, the walls of her kitchen tell a different story.
They exhibit a blue, red, white and purple mosaic of 114 ribbons won in the Maryland State Fair since she started entering her goods in 1987. Breads, jams, chocolates, cakes, pies, you name it. She's done it all and is preparing herself and her wares once again.
"Every ribbon I get, no matter what color it is, it's a thrill," says Linkous.
With a mother who hated to cook, Tai and her four sisters took over the culinary duties.
Growing up on a farm in Idaho, it was a choice between working outside or inside.
"I preferred the kitchen to the barn," she says.
And it paid off. Not only has she garnered awards in traditional fair categories, she has also placed highly in regional Land O' Lakes, Pillsbury and Dromedary Dates cooking competitions.
And though the former executive secretary "would die" if she ever emerged from the fair ribbon-less, she says the competition doesn't fit stereotypes about catty, scheming housewives bent on victory.
The closest she's come to real rancor was the Spam competition, where the judging is done in front of the entrants.
"It's a real challenge to do something with Spam," she says, although she met the challenge. Once she encased the product in a puff pastry with Swiss cheese and honey mustard. And another year, she made a two-crust brunch pie with spinach and ricotta cheese.
"I swore up and down I'd never put myself through that again," she says.
Just as the idea of the snippy housewife plagues the culinary community, so does the image of the baking grandma. But Linkous is hardly the rotund, apple-cheeked matron with a checked apron and a tray of fresh-baked cookies permanently affixed to her palms. Fit and energetic, Linkous knows her dietary boundaries. Not that she doesn't indulge from time to time.
She says her husband is always glad to help out by sampling a sweet or two, especially when she starts dipping chocolates. "Any rejects, he gets," she says. "If it's a good dipping day, he's not happy."
Guy Linkous, 74, has trouble picking a favorite among his wife's creations. He doesn't cook at all, and he values her skill.
"I think it's a very good deal," he says. "My time in the kitchen is limited to making coffee."
Though Guy, to whom she's been married for 20 years, certainly has no complaints about her cooking, Linkous continues to learn and challenge herself.
She likens cooking to making crafts as an art in itself, a form of expression that takes practice as well as talent. She improvises in the kitchen, often starting from a written recipe.
"You learn the chemistry of what goes together and what works," she says.
Her cooking idol is Julia Child. She's a little less impressed with that domestic diva Martha Stewart. And it's not just because she once made Linkous wait an hour and a half at a news conference.
"I don't think she's the epitome of the modern-day cook," Linkous says. "She just turns me off."
Will Linkous ever echo her contemporaries by publishing a cookbook of her own?
Sure, she says, if it's a small, self-published venture that she could use as a fund-raiser. The only secret she won't divulge is the filling for her chocolates. In general, she has no problem sharing recipes.
Linkous loves cooking with or without the promise of a ribbon. She entertains about four times a month. "When we have company, I pull out all the stops."
Drop by the Linkous home for a dinner party and enjoy apricot-stuffed pork tenderloin, cream of green chili and pear soup and raspberry chocolate cheesecake layered with chocolate cream cheese icing.
And it's not just for company, either. You're not likely to find the Linkouses popping a frozen pizza in the oven. When she goes away, Linkous precooks meals for her husband and freezes them.
Even on vacation, you can't keep her out of the kitchen.
"After two or three days, I'm climbing the walls," she says.
No kitchen she encounters on the road is likely to measure up to her own cozy, immaculate one.
Quiet and quaint, the room faces out onto acres of verdant foliage, birds and deer. Copper pots and bright wooden vegetables hang above the stove. A three-tier shelf of cookbooks nestles comfortably by the counter. Flowers and plants enhance the brown and russet accents.
Some people just have good taste.
What: The 115th Maryland State Fair
Where: Timonium Fairgrounds in Baltimore County
When: Opens this Saturday (with a rides-only preview Friday night; see accompanying story, Page 4) and runs through Monday, Sept.2; hours 10 a.m.-10 p.m. with livestock and horse shows at 8:30 a.m. Demonstration halls are open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. The midway opens at 10 a.m. on weekends and noon on weekdays.
Tickets: $4 for adults; children under 12 are admitted free. Price includes admission to the racetrack.
Call: (410) 252-0200, Ext. 226
Pub Date: 8/22/96