Phyllis Olson made her mother a gooseberry pie every year for her birthday.
Born and raised in Jasper County, Phyllis has made a happy life in Newton with her husband, Val. From the age of 18, Phyllis worked in engineering at Maytag, and after 37 years of work, she retired from there in 1996.
“They were wonderful people to work for and with,” she said about her experience at Maytag.
It wasn’t until her mid-20s and the mid-1960s, after being married and established that Phyllis got the urge to start competiting in the fair.
The first time she entered an Iowa State Fair food competition was with an angel food cake and to her pleasant surprise, she received first place. That luck inspired her to participate the following year.
After her husband Val joked about the unlikelihood of winning a blue ribbon two years in a row, Phyllis entered a mahogany chiffon cake. The chocolate cake received first place again. Phyllis said she was then hooked.
Phyllis can’t recall how many ribbons she has won over the years, but she said she wins no less than one blue ribbon and no more than 10 in the state fair food competitions in any given year.
Depending on what was going on in Newton, as well as her and her husband’s work schedules and vacation time, Phyllis has entered in the state fair food competitions almost every year since 1965. She has always enjoyed participating in the fair when she can.
Phyllis described the other entrants she sees once a year as her “fair family” because it feels like a family the way they root for each other and are happy when others win despite the competition.
Besides her “fair family,” Phyllis finds the judges to be equally as important to her experience.
“It was not always a ribbon, but I learn something,” Phyllis said. “The judges are great and you learn from what they tell you. They give you all sorts of wonderful hints. I learn something new every year.”
Phyllis buys competition tags in advance without knowing what she will decide to enter at the fair each year.
On Monday, Aug. 13, Phyllis and Val were on their way home from the Iowa State Fair when Phyllis decided that she would participate in the Pillsbury Pie Baking Championship. She had only cooked with a Pillsbury pie crust one other time, but she thought she would give it a try.
She used gooseberries for the pie filling because of the gooseberry patch in her yard.
“It’s kind of like rhubarb, but it’s tart,” Phyllis described the taste of a gooseberry pie. “Some gooseberries, if you let them ripening a little, then they turn out sweeter.”
Gooseberry is an unusual choice and a rare pie entry at the fair.
“Most people would tell you they don’t like it, and that’s because they’ve never had a good one,” Val said a state fair judge told him after the competition.
The next day, the gooseberry patch pie won her a blue ribbon with a score of 98 out of 100. She received nearly a perfect score for her pie, which was judged based on creativity, simplicity, taste and presentation. The judges left comments on her card that said: “Lovingly prepared and presented,” “Wouldn’t change a thing,” “Bottom crust underbaked” and “Keep up the good work.”
Arletta Hollister, the Iowa State Fair Food Department superintendent, said Phyllis is one of their best exhibitors.
“She’s diversified,” Hollister said about Phyllis. “She’s willing to try new things, and on top of that, she is very involved. Phyllis cares a lot, helps and has a terrific attitude.”
“Phyllis has the support of her husband who is very enthusiastic, and that helps a lot,” Hollister said.
Val Olson admits he’s Phyllis’ No. 1 fan and he’s proud of his wife.
“To me, she’s never fixed anything bad,” Val said. “When I know she’s exhausted, then I cook up my tomato soup standard. I don’t think they have a category for tomato soup out of a can,” Val laughed.
The couple told stories of winning and losing, getting help from other entrants, the importance of the judges advice and about the technicality of the competitions.
Phyllis said there are a lot of good cooks in the state who don’t participate in the annual competition because of schedule differences and travel distance.
One year, the Olsons noticed an attentive woman in the front row closely watching the angel food cake competition. It was her cake she was listening to the judges critique. The 81-year-old was a first-time entrant who had never been able to make it to a competition before. Not only did she win the blue ribbon for her angel food cake, but she also won the blue ribbon in the acclaimed overall cake category that year.
“She just sat there and wept because she was so happy,” Phyllis said.
“There’s a lot of blue ribbons out there that just don’t enter, and a lot of good entries out there that just don’t win the the blue ribbon,” Val said.
Phyllis has lots of insight into the state fair food department, but the judges look for something a little out of the ordinary, she said.
“Just practice, practice, practice, and don’t be afraid to try something a little bit different,” Phyllis said her advice would be to new entrants.
Phyllis feels fortunate to live close to the fairgrounds, that she has the time to attend the fair in August because she is retired and that she gets to participate.
“I don’t care if I don’t see anything else. I could just go there and visit. It’s really all about the people,” she said.
Staff writer Kate Malott may be contacted at (641) 792-3121, ext. 422, or at email@example.com.