The names of judges at the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Fair are largely kept anonymous for fear of bullying, bribery or heckling. There is one livestock judge from off-Island who goes by Steve, although no one can recall his last name. But a handful of judges agreed to talk to the Gazette before they assume judging duties on the fair grounds in West Tisbury later this week as the 151st annual fair gets under way.
Fair entrees will begin arriving on Wednesday afternoon, judging taking place that evening and Thursday morning in the main hall.
Junior baking judge John Alley has been tasting treats from the youngest Islanders for over 30 years. For Mr. Alley, “taste is nice,” but presentation is key.
“Sometimes people get really creative in what they do, it might not necessarily taste the best but they worked like the devil,” he said. “The older children that do this stuff, they’re good.”
The judges strictly follow the fair rules, starting with the older group and working their way to the youngest.
“We have to follow the categories that are spelled out,” Mr. Alley explained. “We start out judging the oldest children by category, and their food is good, but when you get down to the seven and eight-year-olds,” he said with a long sigh, “it’s a little heavy.”
Junior baking includes three age groups — 15 to 20, 10 to 14 and under 10. Judges begin by tasting cakes (only half a cake is allowed) and finish with scones, munching through eight other categories along the way.
“We have lots of water to wash our palettes, sometimes hot coffee, and we try to be as fair as possible — no pun intended,” Mr. Alley laughed. “But we give out a lot of honorable mentions. People try hard with whatever product they come up with.”
The judges are presented with each category of baked goods on one table at 7 p.m. on Wednesday. Samples are passed around and judges vote on first, second, third place and honorable mentions.
“We have judges from all walks of life . . . oftentimes there will be one or two judges for whatever reason who have to leave — and we’ll flag someone else down who’s standing around in the hall. Not many turn it down,” Mr. Alley said.
Some years there is “plethora of brownies,” said Mr. Alley, who confessed he has a particular fondness for cookies. And weather is a factor in the baking competition.
“The last couple of years it’s been beastly hot out,” Mr. Alley said, noting a drop in entries. “Once in a while there will be an item you don’t want to try because it’s spoiled from the heat and you can tell. If something has a lot of butter in it and it’s turned in at 4 p.m., three hours left out ain’t so good. Sometimes you find that out all by yourself.”
Mr. Alley’s son Sam is also a junior baking judge.
“He brings his own style, every judge has their own, his is the overall taste and presentation theory,” Mr. Alley said.
“The most important thing is to have fun and give the kids a break in terms of the ribbons,” he added. “We try to make everybody feel good . . . the whole idea of the fair is fun. You have to approach it with some humor, as opposed to adult baking. It’s down in the trenches there.”
One adult baking judge concurred.
“People try really hard and put in an awful lot of time and effort, the judges appreciate that,” said Joe, who has been an adult baking judge for 35 years and would only allow his first name to be used.
There are five adult baking judges and the position is coveted.
“We joke that the only way you can get to be a judge is if one of us passes away,” said Joe.
Adult baking judges begin tasting at 9 a.m. Thursday and finish nearly four hours later. Thursday morning fair-goers may have a chance to participate in the judging — Joe and the other judges give out samples and leftovers to people mingling outside the hall, sometimes even asking their opinion.
Joe said he weighs taste and presentation equally, but confessed that the true way to his heart his through a good chocolate cake.
“The last 10 years we’ve had a lot of pies,” he said. “In the early 1970s we stopped accepting pies because of botulism.”
“On the other side, a good bread is also very, very tasty,” he added. The judges bring butter and jam to put on breads, muffins and scones to enhance the flavors as they taste.
Sometimes the baking judges encounter hazards. Joe recalled one year when a husband and wife team who entered a number of baked goods and had left their flour near moth balls.
“We didn’t know it until we tasted it,” he recalled. “It wasn’t the most enjoyable experience. That same year ants got the candies before we did so we couldn’t sample them.”
The judge only known as Joe continued: “We drink lots of water in between tasting . . . and when it’s all said and done, we wind our way to get some fried tempura. You need some grease after all that sweet.”
In the fair grounds paddocks, horse judge Alvin Craig from Essex will be overseeing the draft horse events on Friday and Sunday. He’s been judging the Vineyard fair for the past five years, and prior to that was the manager of the Topsfield Fair, the country’s oldest fair, on the North Shore.
Friday’s draft horse halter class competition and pulling is a “beauty contest” for horses, Mr. Craig said, followed by the draft horse show on Sunday. Mr. Craig judges a single horse or pairs as they go through an obstacle course. He said he looks at “how they perform as a team or a unit, how they match up in color and how they’re driven.” He also looks at the what shape the harnesses are in and if the equipment is clean. Above all, the horses must be well trained.
Every fair is different, Mr. Craig said, but New England fairs are a particular breed.
“New England fairs are about New England, and the Vineyard fair is different in that it’s a very simple operation, it’s not complicated at all,” Mr. Craig said. “They have a skillet toss, local musicians, local food and local animals. The local aspect is really great and people enjoy that.”
He continued: “You never know who you’re standing beside when you’re at the fair, it could be local folks or folks who own half the Island. But they’re all here for that one day to enjoy the fair.”
He singled out for extra praise the Rising Tide Therapeutic Equestrian show on Sunday, where he assists in judging as well.
“We used to give them ribbons and place them and that didn’t seem fair to me so we gave them all blue ribbons. But last year we made a mistake and got the regular display of ribbons, so we let the participants pick their own color. It was interesting because the young lady that came over to pick the first ribbon chose the yellow ribbon because she had on a yellow shirt, and the boy who had a white horse chose a white ribbon.
“The blue ribbon was the last one to go. Perhaps that’s a lesson to all of us.”
All junior hall and adult non-perishable entries must be at the agricultural hall between noon and 5 p.m. on Wednesday. Adult perishables must be at the hall by 8:15 a.m. on Thursday. Eggs and butter entries are due by 9 a.m. on Friday.
This column is meant to reflect all aspects of agriculture and farm life on the Vineyard. Remy Tumin may be contacted at 508-627-4311, extension 120, or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.