Tarbell family dominates state fair food contests
CENTERVILLE – The heart and soul of the Iowa State Fair is food – the making and eating of it.
Big boars and giant corn dogs are stars of the fair, which starts its 11-day run Thursday. But those who make food – the fierce competitors armed with cookies and casseroles, relishes and jams – are a special breed of fair excess.
And among them, the Tarbell family of Centerville is without equal. Over four generations, they have won upwards of 10,000 ribbons in food contests. That’s a guess; it’s likely more. They’ve quit counting.
The Tarbells continue to win even as the food competition has stiffened and become the largest of any state fair in the country. This year’s 883 contests have attracted 10,000 entrants.
In the last three years alone, 83-year-old matriarch Olive Jean Tarbell, daughter Robin Tarbell-Thomas, 53, and granddaughter Molly Thomas, 21, have racked up 500 ribbons. Olive’s late mother, Mildred Phillips, brought home 5,000 ribbons from state and county fairs before retiring from it in 1980.
Many think Robin and her more than 3,000 State Fair ribbons are without equal these days, an opinion shared by judges who like good cookies.
“There’s really no way to confirm they have won the most, but we think that is the case,” said Lori Chappell, the State Fair’s marketing director.
Just 30 years ago, when food superintendent Arlette Hollister took over, the fair had 6,000 entries vying for $6,910 in prizes. This year, the prize money is $77,019.
The Tarbells could give the newcomers some hints.
“Robin has a certain artistry in her cookies,” said Hollister, of Des Moines. “You know which ones are hers just by looking at them. I see people try to copy her. That’s a big thing, to beat Robin Tarbell.”
Robin is a legal assistant, not taken to verbal flourish, who reluctantly agreed to host a reporter and photographer a week before the fair. She was behind and racing the clock.
She planned to make 150 fair entries as her mother, Olive, prepared 75 and Molly 25. They trade off categories each year to avoid competing against each other.
These fair competitions tie them together. It’s the fabric of their family life. “I just think of my grandmother,” Robin said.
Mildred Phillips entered her first competitions in the late 1930s, taking after her own mother, Eva Horstman, who got the ball rolling by baking a cake in a wood stove for the Moulton Jamboree early in the last century.
She didn’t have a car – never did – and a neighbor took her cake to be judged. It won. She was always proud of that ribbon.
Her daughter Mildred upped the game. She went to the Appanoose County Extension Service and inquired about the rules to enter State Fair competitions.
She was a good cook, feeding her farmer husband, whom she married after he did cartwheels for her to earn her attention in junior high. She was equally determined.
But the extension agent told her not to try. The State Fair was for the top cooks in Iowa. She wouldn’t have a chance.
“Mother was mad as a hornet,” said Olive Tarbell. “She said, ‘I will find a way, and I will go to that State Fair.’ “
After winning a ribbon that first year, she had the fever. She took more food the next time, eventually becoming one of the top competitors in canning.
It wasn’t easy back then. They had to haul everything to the fair all at once, without speedy trips to and fro like today. They loaded up one vehicle with tents, a change of clothes, and all the food and farm products to be judged for a week. There was little room left for her husband’s stalk of corn to bring for judging. He tied it to the side the car.
“We looked like Ma and Pa Kettle,” Olive said.
Through the ’40s and ’50s, Mildred gathered more ribbons but had yet to win the coveted prize, the Archway cookie award. She put her peanut butter cookies to the test – the official family taster was her son-in-law, Olive’s late husband, Ivyl.
“He was hard of hearing, but his taste was excellent,” Olive said. “So he was chomp-chomping on that cookie and he said, ‘Good, but not good enough for the State Fair.’ “
She was mad, but made them again and won, the first of three big Archway wins.
Olive followed in the tradition, often using family recipes and “doctoring them up” in a long line of “this and that” creativity.
Her reputation as a baker in gathering more than 2,000 State Fair ribbons eventually landed Olive in a national advertising campaign for Crisco in the 1960s. She appeared in television commercials and print advertisements.
Not to be outdone, Robin Tarbell-Thomas proclaimed at age 6 that she was going to enter cookies in the fair, using her tiny Suzy Homemaker oven, but there were no contests for children then.
She started entering fair food contests in 1975 at age 14 and expanded the legacy, bringing a new eye for presentation. At first, she liked the pocket money a prize earned, although today it barely pays for ingredients, she says.
But she did gain fame. In 1999, her pickles were so good that Gedney used her recipe and put her face on its product. The company took her on tour, wearing a pickle hat and handing out samples. Robin’s appearance in the August 2014 issue of Woman’s Day for her pickled cauliflower is one in a string of features on the family in local and national magazines.
“Some people think we’re nuts,” Olive said.
But they have company. Today’s food competitions draw more entrants, especially men, to ever-increasing categories, such as gluten-free and vegan.
“Robin is always one of my best competitors. She and I will always go back and forth with blue ribbons,” said Rod Zeitler, an Iowa City physician who has 185 canning entries this year. “I enjoy winning. I think I’m an obsessive-compulsive type. You’ve got to be to do something like this. But people like Robin have so many entries in so many categories I don’t think she can enjoy it like I can.”
On the contrary, Olive said her daughter and granddaughter relish in the spirited competition. They constantly fuss over every detail of taste and presentation.
The canned products need to be of local farmers’ highest quality, and arrangement in the jars artful. The cookies need to be perfectly browned on the bottom but soft inside, the dried fruit and gourmet sugars perfectly placed.
They lug items back and forth from the fair every day, at times frosting a cake in the van on the way.
In some years, the trip was tough, coming off the death of family members or illnesses. But they kept “taking to the fair,” their all-encompassing phrase for their passion.
Even as Grandma Mildred became frail, she arrived for one last baking session in 1990. The last day of the fair was her time to make her special doughnuts.
“She drove into town and helped make doughnuts that day. I didn’t even know she was still driving,” Olive said. “I’ll always remember that.”
“It meant so much to my grandma to be here making those doughnuts,” recalled Robin.
She died a couple of years later.
Even today, after Robin’s brother Darrell suffered a massive heart attack a month ago and is recovering from open-heart surgery, they press on.
“By cracky, they’d be proud,” Olive said of her parents.
The old farm has been sold off. The farmhouse that Olive’s father made for her mother, Mildred, as a honeymoon gift, its basement bricks made of sand off the farm, has been moved to another location, which they still drive past often. Many of the old ways are gone, but not the fair.
Molly Thomas, 21, has long shouldered the tradition. The addition of children’s categories allowed her to make her first cookies for the State Fair at age 4. She has gathered hundreds of her own ribbons, and this year will enter in bread categories, including sourdough rolls made from a culture the family has been feeding since she was a toddler.
“Just the experience of making it and looking in the case and seeing your name next to it is exciting,” the nursing student said. “But mainly I do it because it’s a family tradition.”
Last week, three generations, all with dark hair and wearing red blouses, thumbed through the handwritten recipes in Olive’s kitchen and spotted one so old they were penned before refrigeration – “Ice Box Cookies.”
They needed to get busy.
“We know who to look out for,” Olive said of the competition.
For 80 years, the competition has needed to look out for the Tarbells.