Let's talk pickles. Sliced dills, to be precise.
They shouldn't be squishy. Or too slippery. Or appear aged or infirm. They need to have a wet yet crisp quality - one that demands they be chewed, but not too much.
And they need to smell like, well, pickles, with dill and salt flavors clearly coming through.
So deem the pickle judges for the Anne Arundel County Fair. By the time the five-day event opens this afternoon in Crownsville, some jars of pickles will sport the volunteer judges' blue ribbons, as will jars of other vegetables, fruits, jams and whatever else entrants have canned and baked. Not to mention the inedibles, such as photos and teddy bears.
But back to the dills. The jars await. First, the judges inspect the metal ring that secures the lid: It has to be clean. One would be concerned about the care of food preparation if the ring were rusted.
On to the lid. Same thing. And not sticky. Now the judges pop up the lids, having come armed with their own can openers.
Ruth Rye slides pickles from the jars onto a paper plate, then cuts each sample in half. The women grab plastic spoons, and the assault on the dills begins.
"These are soft, yellow," sighs Rye, 69, of Cub Hill, pushing into one.
"They are kind of mushy," agrees Nancy Wolf, 56, of Chaptico.
Signs they were on the vine too long. The taste? Respectable.
They clean their palates with bread and sips of water and move on.
One bite of the next sample had Rye pursing her lips and squinting. "It's really salty," she says.
"Sour," pronounces Wolf.
The final sample could have used more salt but has good flavor. A few pokes show it has a nice texture. And the slices are somewhat uniform, making for a handsome jar.
Done. There were just three entries.
The number of canned goods is down this year, with the jams and jellies taking up less than one display riser and the rest of the fruits and veggies filling only one more.
"It's the drought, absolutely," says Karlene Zepp, 42, of Glen Burnie, chairwoman of the canned goods.
While she wouldn't call home canning a dying art, she doesn't think people can as much as they used to. Which is a shame, she says. Good home-canned foods have a depth of flavor that commercial goods can't replicate - maybe, she says, because you can practically taste the TLC that goes into the home variety.
There's no lack of creativity. Entries this year included cream soda jam, pickled eggs and canned bread.
Judges in every category have to take classes to be certified for their roles. Many go from fair to fair, helping to avoid potential conflicts that could arise with in-county judges. And at least two people must be available to judge each sample, in case one judge simply hates that type of food.
Take hot pepper jelly. Dorothy Bowers, 72, of Savage was the only one who tasted more than a dozen entries at the Frederick County Fair some years ago. "I like hot, and nobody else did," she explains.
Yesterday, Bowers and Doris Rye, a self-described senior citizen and sister of judge Ruth Rye, were pronouncing which were the fairest jams and jellies. Five jars of blueberry spreads are lined up.
Bowers pushes away a jar of blueberry-banana jam, shaking her head.
"Ew," she remarks. "You can't put banana in stuff."
One jar is disqualified because the jam is touching the lid, another because it is not full enough. Contestants do themselves a disservice by not following instructions, whether by overstuffing, skimping, including a top layer of wax or using the wrong jar (old mayo jars are the kiss of death for entries).
But one blueberry jar exudes an aroma so marvelous and fruity that Rye sighs "mmm" before even putting a dollop on her tongue. She nudges it toward Bowers. A winner.
Across the aisle, baked-goods judges are avoiding the crusts. Only the middle will do in determining the quality of a bread or biscuit or cake. John Crawford, 68, of Frederick says he can look at the bottom to see if it is burned. But, he asks as he cuts apart a biscuit to get to the center, how else would one know if the item is fully baked? And biscuits have a real issue with texture.
"It needs to be soppable," says Cheri Smith, 57, of Pasadena. That means light enough to soak up whatever else is on the plate, but not so spongy that it gets soggy in the process. "Flaky, not dry," Crawford says.
And not too dense or tough. Heavy, however, is fine.
The ends of the baked goods are getting shoveled into a carton top and eventually may go in the trash can - "that's if we don't pick at it all day," says Renee Schwartz, 26, of Annapolis, baked-goods chairwoman.
She says she takes a nibble here and there of samples from the items that get blue ribbons. The public, however, gets no taste. Unlike some of the other county fairs, Anne Arundel does not sell off yummy entries.