State fair contest serves up original food creations

Tuesday, August 14, 2007 | 1:04 p.m. CDT; updated 7:38 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008
Katie Allen, the 2007 Missouri State Fair Queen, competes in the Mystery Sack Contest on Monday.

SEDALIA — Chris Nelson was afraid her paper bag might contain liver — or canned Spam.

Nelson, a Boone County attorney and mother of two, was one of seven participants in the Missouri State Fair’s Mystery Sack Contest on Monday. Each contestant had 30 minutes to prepare an original dish using all six of the “mystery” ingredients found inside a bag.

Applications and a $2 entry fee were due by July 20 to secure a spot in the competition.

“I’m noted for cooking at home, especially pies,” Nelson said, which is why she decided to enter.

Nelson lives in Hallsville with her husband, Fred, and their two children, Andrew, 19, and Kellar, 20, who will be a junior at MU this fall. They own a farm about eight miles south of Centralia that has soybeans, wheat, milo, cattle and sheep. The Nelsons have been staying in the 4H/FAA dorms since Saturday.

Seven electric skillets were arranged inside a fenced-off stage in the center of the Home Economics Building at the State Fairgrounds. A handful of spectators relaxed on the surrounding green benches, watching as the contestants opened their mystery sacks to reveal ground beef, mushrooms, cheddar cheese, celery, a green onion and some dry oatmeal. Groceries were provided by Web & Sons.

The contest also allowed participants to supplement the six paper-bag items with three ingredients from home. Nelson brought a jar of her homemade cucumber relish, a tub of shaved parmesan cheese and a plastic bottle of V8 juice.

Nelson tipped a bit of oil into the warming skillet and shook some oatmeal into the beef-filled Ziploc bag. She checked her watch and began slicing the green onion.

Another competitor had opted for the meatball strategy, topping small beef spheres with thinly sliced vegetables. A man donning a chef’s hat sliced rectangular potato crisps to adorn the beef; they looked like sticks of gum frying in a pan and smelled of rosemary.

With more than five minutes to spare, Nelson transferred a tomato-smeared beef hunk from the skillet to a paper plate, sprinkling it with onions, mushrooms, bits of cheese and a celery stalk on the side. She used the remaining time to tidy her cooking space; neatness counts for 10 percent of the score. Appearance and presentation counts for another 10 percent; best use of products is 30 percent; and taste is 50 percent.

Three judges holding clipboards encircled the stage. The women examined the beef creations from various angles and sampled from each with plastic forks. They marked their scorecards and then disappeared into a corner office to tally the results.

After more than 30 minutes, a man came to the front of the stage with a microphone to announce the top three: Chris Nelson, Boone County’s sole representative in the 12:30 competition, had won first prize.

Afterward, the audience was invited to sample some of the dish, which Nelson later named “Smothered Hamburger Steak.” It was a reminder that there is more to the Missouri State Fair than just cattle.

Well, except for the ground beef.

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