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Phyllis Olson loves to bake

Newton woman has competed in state fair competitions for years

Phyllis Olson, of Newton, stands with a slice of pineapple upside down cake during the first day of the Iowa 
State Fair.
Phyllis Olson, of Newton, stands with a slice of pineapple upside down cake during the first day of the Iowa State Fair.

Ask anyone who knows her, and they’ll tell you; Phyllis Olson loves to bake. Olson, a lifelong Newton resident will tell you she does it because her husband loves to eat, but that’s just the icing on the cake. She’s been baking all her life, and come state fair time you’ll find her in the judging booths, with an armload of goodies.

On opening day at the Iowa State Fair, Olson was in the Elwell Family Food Center, with a prizewinning pineapple upside down cake tucked under one arm, and a sack full of freshly baked bread tucked under the other arm.

She started baking at 7 a.m. Wednesday, and it wasn’t until that night when she finally finished her dish. Once all of her baking was done for the day, Olson started the paperwork that accompanies each contest entry. She’s required to submit proof of purchase for the required flour and yeast, as well as complete a recipe card for every entry. The former Maytag employee said that the kitchen is where she feels at home.

“Ever since retirement I’ve really stepped it up,” Olson said.

Olson plans to enter more than 50 food competitions this year at the fair, and in some years, she’s entered close to 100. With her husband Val, her official taste tester and go-fer at her side, she’s become a fixture at the competitions, and she looks forward to the event every year.

“We’re kind of a state fair family here,” Olson said. “There’s just so many legendary cooks and bakers here, we’re just a big family.”

Olson made the pineapple upside down cake this year in memory of her father, who loved the cake. She’ll start planning for competition in early summer, poring over her collection of more than 400 cookbooks, looking for ways to put her own spin on each recipe. She doesn’t enter any of the big decorating contests, she’d rather just focus on the basics.

“I’m not that way, I don’t do fancy, I’m just a basic baker,” Olson said.

Judy Kiburz-Harrison, from Tingley, has known Olson and her husband for years. Like Olson, Kiburz-Harrison loves to bake. Growing up with a mother and a grandmother who baked, she didn’t get started until she wanted to get closer to her mother, who passed away in March of this year.

“When I helped mom, I really enjoyed it, because it was something that we could do together,” Kiburz-Harrison said.

While admitting she didn’t sleep at all the night before, Kiburz-Harrison said that she hopes to enter at least 60 items this year. Like Olson, she’ll spend more of her time at the fair in the family food center, waiting to see how the competition shakes out.

Their shared love of baking isn’t the only thing that’s brought Olson and Kiburz-Harrison together. Both women are breast cancer survivors, and every year they walk for the cure together. Over the years the two women have become close, and when Kiburz-Harrison’s mother passed away this year Olson and her husband drove down to Mount Ayr for the funeral.

“We always try to keep in touch, I wish I’d known her when I lived in Baxter,” Kiburz-Harrison said.

The Olsons who have only missed the state fair once, in 1990 when Val had back surgery, don’t bother with the rides. Even though the competitions are their main interest, they try to see at least one new thing every year at the fair.

Olson hasn’t keep track of the number of ribbons that she’s won over the years, when she gets back to her home in Newton she puts them into a box and starts to work on her next creation.

“I just like to bake, and my husband likes to eat,” Olson said. “I’d rather read a cookbook than a novel.”

Contact David Dolmage at 641-792-3121 ext. 6532 or

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