Hundreds of cookies and none to eat, they all have to fit in the gallon jar.
The race for the jar usually starts in January or February, when the new theme of the fair or the jar is announced. The theme of the jar usually follows the theme of the fair but not always.
Sometimes the idea for the decoration for the jar came very easy and I knew almost immediately what I wanted to use and how it was to look. Other times it took a month or two. The year the theme of the fair was “It’s A Big To Do”, it took me about two months to come up with the jar design. But then it hit to me like a bolt of lightning one day.
I was driving down Main Street that day and looked over at the fair grounds and there stood the information center. Instantly I saw the jar of cookies setting down in the middle of it.
I showed the design to my carpenter, Harold Moorman, who built all my jar decorations. He was my lucky charm. It looked just like the information center, when he finished with it. I usually went to the fair grounds and took pictures of the object I wanted him to build. I tried to take them from every angle possible, and then Harold would go down and walk around it to get an idea of the scale.
The decoration around the jar made up half of the score, up to 50 points. It couldn’t extend more than 4 inches from the jar in any direction. And the judges were very strict about that rule. The first thing they did when they started looking at a jar was grab the ruler and measure it in all directions. If it was too large in any direction it was disqualified immediately. They would still judge the cookies and critique them, but the jar was out of the running.
The decoration was supposed to allow the judges to see at least half of the cookies when they looked at the jar, and this design allowed them to see at least 90 % of the cookies. The judges were not allowed to open the jar or remove it from the decoration, so being able to see most of the cookies was important.
The cookies could score up to 50 points. They were supposed to be fancy cookies, not just brown cookies like peanut butter or chocolate chip. I started looking for new recipes as soon as I came up with the design of the jar, so they would go along with the theme.
I always liked to name the cookies for things on the fair ground, like the midway caramel heavenlies, Lemonade Stand snaps, and highway patrol thumbprint cookies. These are three of the ones that were in the winning jar.
Once I found a new recipe, I tried it several times during the year to perfect it, and there was always people who were willing to sample them and let me know what they thought. I wondered sometimes just how impartial they were though. It was not unusual to change recipes in the middle of the stream and go a different direction if I discovered a recipe that was more interesting.
I always used 13 cookies, which is my lucky number. Once the cookies were established, as to the ones I would use, I did a complete run through at least once and made all the cookies. This was to get the timing down and see which order to bake them in.
I became smarter over the years, and no longer did that, to the chagrin of my tasters. I’d made so many cookies that I could tell which order to put them in and how long it was going to take to make all of them.
In the beginning I mixed up a batch of cookies and then baked them, and then moved onto the next kind. I also used to bake the whole batch and then had to find something to do with all of them.
I only needed 6-10 of each cookie to pack the jar and 4 extra for the judges. Now I mix all 13 kinds of dough up on the Monday and then start baking on Tuesday morning. I make the ones that will hold the best on Tuesday, and then the ones that need to be the freshest on Wednesday.
The cookie jar had to be in by 7:00 P.M. Wednesday night. I have gotten smarter in my many attempts at the jar, and now I only bake as many as I need. When I get 6-10 that look the same and 4 that are perfect for the judges; I am done with that particular recipe. I either freeze the rest of the dough or give it to one of my friends, who will bake their own. Then I move on to the next kind.
After all the cookies were baked, I wrapped each one individually in saran wrap and taped it shut on the back of the cookie, before putting it in the jar. This helps the cookies keep their shape and they don’t break as easily.
Then I could start to load the jar, one row at a time. This was the easy part, and the cookies seemed to choose their spot themselves. They just seemed to fit in the jar in a predetermined pattern that made sense to them. So I just went along with it. It was always a great relief to get the lid on the jar and the jar placed in the decoration.
The last task was to put the cookies you selected for the judges in a small bag and label it, and put all the different bags of cookies into a box. Then assemble all the recipes, on 8” X 11” paper, into a notebook and take all three items to the fair grounds with out any damage.
I was like a mother hen when I took the jar into the building. I didn’t want anyone to handle it but me. I always took it personally into the room where they were judged and sat it down, and placed the cookies for the judges and the recipes in front of it. Then it was out of my hands and up to the discerning pallets of the judges.
I learned one year, while watching the judging, just what the judges could tell from just one taste; they knew if the oven was dirty, if the person used real butter, if they used Hershey’s chocolate (the best and most mellow), and even if they made them ahead and froze the cookies.
When someone wins first place they have to lay out one year and can’t enter, but most of us start immediately looking for new recipes to put in the next jar. It’s a constant hunt for unique and fancy looking cookies to put in the jar.
Friends gave me books of cookie recipes to help me with my search for unique cookies; of course they expected to have samples of the recipes I tried.
I was fortunate because I always placed when I entered the contest. I won third the first year, and then first in 2000 with the jar that looked like the information center. Then I had to lay out a year. In 2002 and 2004 I placed second again. While placing is a great honor, nothing beats the thrill of winning.
So when you are admiring the cookie jars at the fair you will understand the 1-2 years of work that went into the design and the cookies. But it is worth it to get to meet the Governor for just a few minutes and to have the bragging rights for at least one year.
The cookie jars go to the Governor’s mansion in Topeka, where they reside in a room built just for them, and they are used for table centerpieces from time to time. It is nice to know that your jar will be seen again and again, and enjoyed by others, instead of just being forgotten. To email Sandy: [email protected]