PALMER -- State fairs in general, and the Alaska State Fair in particular, are about food. Not just the booths selling everything under the sun in fried or smoked form, but the contests that showcase the culinary imagination of local folks.
Chili and seafood competitions took place last weekend. This Sunday, there'll be the Rancher's Reserve Beef Throwdown and, on Monday, black pot enthusiasts can take in the Last Frontier Dutch Oven Cook-Off.
In the Hoskins Exhibits building, where the award winning jams, beers and cookies are stored, there's a near-constant parade of cooking competitions including a cake decorating contest (Friday), homemade bread contest (Saturday) and micro brew competition (Sunday).
Monday it was Spam. Nine contestants spread out their best efforts to create something delicious and different from Hormel's processed canned meat. At stake were bragging rights, cash and a shot at going to the Waikiki Spam Jam in Hawaii in February.
Each year the rules stipulate a different theme. They stipulate appetizers or entrees, for instance.
Last year, everything had something to do with macaroni and cheese.
This year, the recipes focused on breakfast dishes -- which pleased the judges.
"It's amazing some of the things that people come up with," said Casey Ressler, who has judged the contest for 16 years. "There are sometimes I just have to hold my nose, take a bite and hope for the best."
That wasn't the case this year, he said. Perhaps the breakfast angle cut down on spurious recipes.
"There were just nine entries this year," Ressler said. "Some years we've had like 32."
"I liked the breakfast," said judge Karen Bonser, who owns the Wake Up Call Cafe at Mat-Su College.
Spam is notoriously hard to blend with other ingredients; it stubbornly rejects absorbing the flavors of other foods or imparting its own flavor to anything else.
"But you can do more with Spam as breakfast than as lunch," said Bonser.
This include adding a sweetener. There were maple Spam cinnamon buns and Spam-stuffed Twinkies, breaded, fried, spattered with sugar and served on a stick. Also a quiche and a Spam and biscuit offering.
"Everything is good this year," said judge Jackie Purcell, the meteorologist for Channel 2. "But watch for the Celtic Spam eggs. They're a very unique item."
Purcell said her husband grew up in Central, deep in interior Alaska, and loves Spam.
The judging weighed taste, originality and presentation.
First place, and $150, went to Mary Helms, creator of those Celtic Spam eggs, a variation on Scottish eggs with sausage, onions, green pepper, garlic, corn flakes and hollandaise sauce -- in addition to the Spam.
It was Helms' sixth win in the event. The imaginative chef took top honors in 2009 with a Spammed-up version of lo mein.
In the case of the egg dish, she (somewhat) solved the blending issue by grinding the Spam in a food processor before adding it to the meat-and-batter blanket that covers the boiled eggs. She won $150 and a shot at an all-expense-paid trip to the Waikiki Spam Jam.
A longshot, she noted. "The recipes go to the Hormel kitchens where they get narrowed down," she said.
Second place and $50 went to K. Skille for the cinnamon buns, elegantly presented with a thick frosting generously sprinkled with Spam bits.
Janet Fountain-Taylor won $25 for her third-place entry, a cajun-inspired baked dish in which Spam shared the casserole dish with croutons, andouille sausage and smoked salmon.
Asked what she plans for the contest next year, Helms said, "I'll sit it out. The rules say you can't compete for a year after you win."
Reach Mike Dunham at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4332.Photos: Alaska State Fair
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By MIKE DUNHAM