Sure, we know there’s great rodeo riding and sheep shearing to entertain us, rivers of poinsettias and sculpted winter-blooming garden scenes to give color to our winter-weariness, and a cacophony of clucking and baaing and mooing all blending into a barnyard orchestra. But admit it, we really return to the Pennsylvania State Farm Show each year for the food.
“When I was a kid, I remember always waiting in line to get my 50-cent milkshake and a signature Farm Show baked potato,” recalls Christian Herr, who exhibited sheep at the show during his childhood, oversaw contests as a deputy secretary of agriculture, and now organizes the show’s largest food booth as executive vice president of Penn Ag Industries. “It’s still the best place to feed your family with good locally grown food for not a lot of money.”
The show remains the nation’s largest indoor gathering devoted entirely to celebrating and promoting agriculture. It continues traditions started in 1917, such as exhibiting celery and wool, while giving up others, like the 1955 mashed potato sculpture (a cheese sculpting contest has been tried in recent years).
The first Farm Show, called the Pennsylvania Corn, Fruit, Vegetable, Dairy Products and Wool Show, offered $1,430 in premiums for exhibits, but was designed more as a gathering place for farm meetings than a showcase for the state’s agriculture. Ninety-four years later, the 2010 Farm Show, held January 9-16, offers $561,000 in premiums for everything from champion Belgian horses to square-dancing groups and is designed more as family entertainment. Especially if by entertainment you mean a festival of everything edible.
Acres and acres of glorious food are generously spread throughout the massive Harrisburg complex. From elaborate homages to single ingredients like the showcase handcarved butter sculpture to gourmet cooking competitions featuring deft combinations of Pennsylvania’s extensive bounty, food is the main attraction.
We wonder at the farmers’ harvest displays: cascading waterfalls of fragrant apples, honey in every shade from nearly clear to rich dark brown, leeks as big as your arm and pumpkins outweighing your entire family.
We ooh and aah at the home kitchen creations: ornamental displays of preserved fruits and vegetables shimmering like jewels, elaborate gingerbread houses peppered with candy confections held fast with sugar icing, and mountains of pies and cakes and cookies and breads all waiting to be judged.
We indulge in the vendors’ booths, sampling unusual jams and dressings and snack foods, tasting new product lines from dozens of familiar state food manufacturers, and discovering emerging companies anxious to earn a place on grocery shelves.
We get in line for samples at the cooking demonstrations: learning how sap becomes maple syrup, watching ebullient cookbook authors and celebrity chefs bring their recipes to life, and cheering the throw-down competitions between local culinary students and between the state’s master chefs.
And then there’s the obligatory food court with all its indulgences: thick chocolate and vanilla milkshakes, piles of steaming baked potatoes and potato doughnuts, hot roast beef sandwiches slathered in horseradish, ice cream drizzled with honey, maple sugar spun into woolly clouds of cotton candy and an assortment of the state’s bounty cooked in hot oil — fried fish, fried mushrooms, fried vegetables, French fries.
With its pulled pork sandwiches, red beet eggs, apple dumplings and shoofly pie — to name just a few of the temptations — the food court does more than sell munchies to the hundreds of thousands of visitors. The proceeds help the nonprofit growers’ associations pay for agricultural research and activities to promote their products throughout the year. And it gives them a hands-on connection with their customers.
“We have CEOs of companies who make it a tradition to spend one day during the week selling chicken nuggets and fish sandwiches and baked goods to the public,” says Herr, who notes that Farm Show week starts off with 10 tons of pork, a tractor-trailer load of chicken and racks of fresh baked goods arriving daily. No one goes away from the Farm Show hungry.
And no one goes away without learning more about the Commonwealth’s rich agricultural heritage and variety of harvests.
For anyone who’s made a New Year’s resolution to become a locavore, the show offers one-stop shopping for everything from apple butter to wine, with sourcing information to keep that resolution going throughout the year. Apple, pear and nut growers auction off their displays as the show concludes, selling bushels of their prize-winning varieties. On the last day of the show, people stock up on boxes of baked goods and cartons of vegetable soup to freeze. And in the waning hours, it’s possible to buy bags of leftover yellow-fleshed Farm Show potatoes to bake at home.
As for such intimidating ingredients as emu steaks or cave cheese, chefs whip up locally sourced creations throughout the show, offering recipes along with samples of their demonstrations.
“We’re very excited to be bringing Eli Kirshtein from Bravo’s Top Chef Las Vegas on opening day, demonstrating recipes featuring Pennsylvania mushrooms,” says JoAnna Gresham, marketing division chief for the state Department of Agriculture. “The three-time champion Pennsylvania Iron Chef Team will compete in the PA Iron Chefs’ Champions Challenge. Also new this year is the PA Preferred Best Burger Showdown, which will bring together the winners of the 2008 and 2009 Best Burger Grill-off.
And those eager to be the star of their next potluck might check out the family living section, where the state’s best bakers of everything from angel food cake to vegetable bread offer their prize-winning recipes. “I don’t think I’ve seen so much intensity as in the baking and cooking competitions,” says Herr. “And I thought youth sports were competitive!”
The family to beat is the mother-daughter team of Dorothy M. Martin and Debra Martin Berkoski of Conestoga, who together have dominated the family living contests for the past 15 years, bringing an average of 100 items between them each year, from canned goods to vegetables to herbs to baked goods. “I’m proud that my mom still competes and wins at 82,” says Berkoski. “I think she’s one of the oldest competitors.”
Berkoski admires her mother’s strong basic baking skills, but her own entries are always “over the top,” like the winning shoofly pie she created with macadamia nuts. “The rule I have made for myself is to take the great skills my mom has taught me and to push the envelope completely,” she says. “This year I have a bizarre idea for the sticky buns.”
B’s Shoo-Fly Pie
2009 Pennsylvania State Farm Show winner by Belinda Myers, York County
Crust2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
¾ cup Butter-flavored Crisco
6 to 8 Tablespoons ice water
Crumbs for Filling
1 cup flour
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup sugar
1 Tablespoon shortening
Wet Ingredients for Filling
1 egg, beaten
¾ cup Golden Barrel Table Syrup
¼ cup Golden Barrel Lite Corn Syrup
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
¾ cup hot water
¼ cup boiling water
1 teaspoon baking soda
To prepare crust:
In large bowl, cut shortening into flour and salt. Gradually add ice water till moistened. Divide in half. Roll out each half to fit a 9" pie pan. Crimp edge set aside. (Freeze one for later use.)
To make crumbs:
In medium bowl, blend flour, brown sugar and sugar with shortening to form fine crumbs. Reserve 1 cup for top.
In large mixing bowl, beat egg. Add syrups, cinnamon, vanilla and hot water. Dissolve baking soda in boiling water. Add to wet ingredients. Add crumbs. Pour into prepared shell. Sprinkle reserve crumbs on top. Bake in a 375°F oven for 40 to 45 min. and set center.Recipe courtesy PA Farm Show. For more winning recipes, visit the Farm Show website by clicking here.
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