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Longtime State Fair baking champion’s daughters take up her cause

Iowa State Fair baking champion Helen Gannon’s daughters (front) BeBe Pyle, Annie 
Wasson; (back) Maureen Ryan and Eileen Gannon will be judging a cooking 
competition Saturday at the State Fair in memory of their late mother.
Iowa State Fair baking champion Helen Gannon’s daughters (front) BeBe Pyle, Annie Wasson; (back) Maureen Ryan and Eileen Gannon will be judging a cooking competition Saturday at the State Fair in memory of their late mother.

Helen Gannon was a city girl. Born on Nov. 19, 1921, and raised in Waterloo, she enjoyed the big-city lifestyle, but that changed when she met John.

Helen was 22 years old when she met a nice, good-looking farmer while visiting her cousin in Des Moines. They fell in love, got married and in the course of 20 years had 14 children, seven girls and seven boys.

She spent the rest of her life living in the country on the farm near Mingo where John was raised as a wife, mother and grandmother. She raised children and John raised crops and livestock.

“We were blessed with a wonderful childhood,” daughter BeBe Pyle said.

Together, the two taught their children values like hard work, family and education.

“Education was extremely important in our home,” daughter Eileen Gannon said.

Open-minded, kind and gentle, Helen also taught her kids another lifelong skill that is still important to them today — how to cook and bake.

Regardless of what was made for breakfast or dinner at the Gannon house, two things were true: it was a large meal and it was a delicious one.

Like a variety in cookie perferences, each daughter revealed their own favorite dish of their mother made. One believed it was meatloaf and creamed potatoes, and one cheered the complete breakfast spread, while another raved for her pot roast with onion and carrots.

“The way she did it, no one else can,” Eileen said about her mother’s pot roast. “There was something about it.”

Many memories centered around a meal, whether it was sack lunches at the county fair, donating food to the school’s concessions or family dinner on Sunday.

Sunday was church day in the Gannon family. They would pile into two cars and head to the Valeria church for Catholic Mass.

When church was over, the family would come home to work and play on the farm until evening. Some of the girls would help Helen prepare the meal throughout the day, and they would all come in for dinner at night.

“We’d be out all day,” Maureen said. “We’d come home and we’d ride horses. There was always something for all of us to do on the farm.”

Helen died Sept. 19, 2011, in the comfort of her home. Her daughters said they miss her every day.

“She never complained, she was so loving. I miss everything about her,” Annie said.

Helen was a talented baker in her lifetime. She could make it all, but gingersnap cookies were her signature.

“Her gingersnaps she always won with, but I think what she could bake better than anyone else was her chocolate brownie,” BeBe added.

For more than 40 years, Helen was a proud food entrant at the Iowa State Fair and the winner of many blue ribbons. Baking was a fun activity and she enjoyed participating in the competitions during the State Fair.

“The very first ribbon she won was with her peach jam, and I remember she was so proud of that,” Eileen said.

This year, four of the Gannon daughters will represent the family and sponsor a memorial cooking contest in honor of their mother at the State Fair.

The Helen Gannon Memorial Baking Competition will take place at 11 a.m. this Saturday in the Elwell Family Food Center. The four daughters — BeBe, Eileen, Annie Wasson and Maureen Ryan — will have the pleasure of judging the Class 563 Best Gingersnap Cookie contest.

If anyone in Iowa knows anything about gingersnaps, it’s Helen’s daughters. A large deciding factor in choosing a good gingersnap has to do with how much ginger and molasses are used, they said.

Each woman has her own gingersnap preferences: hard or soft, thick or thin, crispy or soft in the middle.

“Everyone loved them, even the grandkids,” Annie, who lives and farms with her husband Dan on the land she grew up on, said.

For the Gannon family, thanks to their mom, they continue to make memories the same way they grew up — together, while sharing food.

Eileen once won $3,000 in a contest after creating a spiced, caramelized bacon coffee for Seattle’s Best Coffee. Like her mother, she regularly competes in the Iowa State Fair.

“BeBe’s still the best baker,” Eileen said, crediting her sister’s talent.

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