When Wanda Closs of Mount Airy decided to enter the apple pie contest at the Howard County Fair yesterday, she went to her 96-year-old grandmother for a time-tested family recipe.
But the judges' top prize went to Ashliegh Knox of Scaggsville for her pie - made with a half-cup of brandy - from a recipe by Martha Stewart.
A combination of generations-old traditions and modern elements is common at the fair, which kicked off its 59th year yesterday at the fairgrounds in West Friendship.
Animal shows and awards for farm crops, vegetables and home crafts continue to draw crowds just down the sidewalk from amusement rides, clowns and rock 'n' roll bands.
The apple pie contest was first held six years ago and was expanded to include an apple dessert contest a few years later. About 25 people watched yesterday as three-judge panels weighed in on the appearance, texture and taste of each entry. At the end, the pies were auctioned to benefit the American Cancer Society.
"I think people have really started to get into it," said Carolyn Kulp, co-superintendent of the fair's home arts department. The contest started with just a handful of entries, she said, and this year there were 19 pies and 16 desserts, including cakes, Danishes, strudels and others.
"I think the idea is to try to key into the type of products that are available from farmers in Howard County," Kulp said. But apples seem to have a particular appeal as well. A peach pie contest two years ago "didn't seem to be what folks wanted," she said.
The contest recalls traditional rural fairs while allowing competitors to try to find new ways to impress the judges.
Diana Mahowald, an accountant from Columbia, won the dessert contest with an apple spice cake recipe she got from her sister. She said she entered the contest for the first time because her son Zachariah, 4, wanted to.
"He helped," she said. "He ran back and forth in the kitchen."
Donna Hoffman of Woodlawn tried something new, mixing apples with raspberry gelatin for her pie entry. "I'm not too domestic, so it's nice to do something [that involves baking]," she said.
Many other contestants stuck to time-tested family recipes.
Robbie Mullinix, 11, of Mount Airy worked with his grandmother, Sally Mullinix, on a pie recipe from her cookbook.
"I did it just to have fun," he said, although Sally said he was pretty confident about his lattice-work crust and the apple shape he made in the dough. He won fifth place.
Even though Closs did not earn a ribbon for one of the top six places, she said she enjoyed learning to make her pie by watching her grandmother, who lives in Rockville.
"I'll be using [the recipe] for years to come," said Closs, a homemaker who home-schools her two children. "We're trying to resurrect some family traditions."
As homes continue to be built on former fields, squeezing the farms that covered the county a generation ago, traditions remain important at the fair. For a week each year, visitors can see live animals, watch an antique thresher at work or cheer on contestants in a cow-milking contest.
A few things have changed at the fairgrounds this year. A second horse ring, built with a wooden fence and a stone-dust surface, was constructed to join one built last year. The entertainment stage also has been replaced.
But most activities will be familiar to fairgoers. A popular petting zoo featuring baby farm animals returns for a second year and perennial favorites such as the pie-eating contest, pig races, fireman's parade and horse-pull also return.
"One thing we try to do is we try to maintain our agriculture focus," said Mickey Day, a past fair president and current board member. "Many youth growing up in Howard County may not have the opportunity to visit a farm."
Animal shows continue to have strong participation, particularly among 4-H members. More than 100 4-H'ers will show 274 pigs, 135 lambs, 70 beef steers and 47 goats in "market" categories, in which the animals are judged on their suitability to be used for food.
Entries in rabbit and poultry categories also are high, likely due to the ease of keeping such animals on smaller parcels of land, said Martin Hamilton, a 4-H extension educator.
"It truly amazes me that we're living in an urban county and we've got [so many] animal projects," he said.
Equestrian activities also are popular, with 10 horse shows scheduled.
Yesterday, judges in the home arts division were called upon to select the best angel food cake, crocheted hat, handmade quilt, oil still-life, wooden furniture and flower arrangement among more than 800 individual nonanimal categories. More than 200 people who had never exhibited before submitted entries, said Chi Chi Brown, a fair volunteer from Lisbon.
That department, and the 4-H home economics department, which covers similar areas, have made room for more modern categories. Entries are accepted in manga, which is a form of Japanese animation, Web pages, rocketry and cakes that start with a mix.
Entries in the fruit and vegetable department and the farm crops department were up, organizers said. Entrants benefited from good growing weather after years of drought and a cloudy, rainy season last year.
All of the contests need volunteer judges to choose the best.
"I'm on a sugar kick for the next three weeks," said Carol Heizer, a veterinary technician from Hagerstown who judged the apple pies.
She said the judges had to take small bites and drink water with lemon to get through all 19 entries. But in the end, they agreed on the best ones.
"Each had a different taste," she said.