The Science Behind the Competition

How does a pie earn a blue ribbon at the Ohio State Fair? We asked three different judges for their insight on food judging at the Fair to capture the science behind the competition. Richard Leiss, Mary Kay Pohlschneider and Marilyn Rabe all come from different backgrounds yet all are connected to the food industry. Between the three of them they have more than twenty years of judging experience and more than a lifetime of experience in the food industry.

Leiss spent his career working with Food Product Development at a vegetarian food company called Worthington Foods, acquired by Kellogg Company. Pohlschneider is a lecturer in the Department of Food Science and Technology at the Ohio State University, and Marilyn Rabe is a Franklin County Family and Consumer Sciences Educator for Ohio State Extension.

Together they have judged everything from apple pies to zucchini bread, each developing a method to their food evaluation.

Leiss explained his starting point, “First I look at the class and rubric to learn the criteria, and ratings for texture, flavor and appearance. A food might look beautiful, but you have to make sure it’s accomplishing what was asked for, such as containing special ingredients.”

Pohlschneider added, “My go- to method is to look at them first. If it’s a really big class, then I eliminate products just on appearance. Depending on the category, sometimes there are very specific things that we are judging.  Sometimes you have a clear winner; sometimes it’s a lot harder. As a group of judges we have to decide which one fits the scorecard and the standard, but also subjectively, is the best.”

You might think trying all kinds of sweet treats might be the perfect occupation, but for these judges eating too much is a fear, and a reality. When asked if you ever get full, Pohlschneider was quick to reply, “Oh Absolutely! At the end of the day you don’t want to see anything else.” Rabe and Leiss agreed they’ve both reached the point where you would rather not take another bite of food, but you learn to take smaller bites through the process.

Not liking the food is also a reality. Pohlschneider shared, “Everytime you judge there’s two or three things that you don’t want to swallow! There are some things that are really that terrible. If it’s a closed judging you spit it out and move on, mentioning to the other judges, ‘you don’t want to eat that one!’ When it’s an open judging in front of people, that’s when it’s hard because if you make a face, somebody is going to get offended. You really have to be careful, just like if you were at a nice restaurant, you learn to deal with it and swallow it. These people who enter their food have worked so hard, and most of what is entered is really good.”

In between each food product, the judges cleanse their palette, each choosing water and saltine crackers as their cleanser of choice. Several “weird” food combinations have been entered at the Ohio State Fair, making the judge’s responsibilities even more interesting. Rabe remembers trying chocolate that had jalapeno peppers in it, “I don’t like very hot spicy things, but it was actually very good, but unusual.” Pohlschneider recalls sauerkraut candy, mentioning what you thought was shredded coconut by appearance, was actually sauerkraut.

The competitiveness of food judging at the Ohio State Fair might surprise some, but each competitor has the desire to be the best. According to Leiss, “More than once someone couldn’t believe their product didn’t win, you kind of wonder to yourself how they could possibly think their product was that good.  Some people can’t quite understand how their favorite of 20 years doesn’t win.”

Even among judges trying to get consensus on what product is the best can be difficult.

Pohlschneider turns this fierce sense of competition into teaching moments, “A lot of second to fifth place winners want to know how to improve their product, and why they didn’t win. I have the opportunity to talk to those bakers and share how you can use science to better your product. I think baking is becoming a lost art, and that’s exactly what the Ohio State Fair should be encouraging, these traditions that are tied back to agriculture and that are being lost.”

For all of the food judges having the opportunity to judge food at the Ohio State Fair resonates with their personal values. Rabe shared, “I enjoy judging because it is different from my day to day job, and I get to work with a lot of wonderful people. Most people are there because they value the art of cooking or baking and they don’t want to see that get lost. I look forward to it every year and see what is new!”

Don’t miss the action and enter your own food products in one of the many Culinary Arts categories at the Ohio State Fair by June 20th.  Learn more here.

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