Gentlemen, take a bow.
Men swept the top three awards last week in the Douglas County Fair’s baked goods contest. A Roseburg man, a Roseburg teen and a Melrose teen baked their way into the judges’ hearts with a fruit pie, buttermilk-honey loaf and wheat bread, respectively.
“I didn’t expect this,” said Roseburg’s Steve Freel, 72, whose raspberry rhubarb pie set a high bar when tasted by baked goods judge Heather Harris of Bandon. She said Freel’s was the first of hundreds of entries she tasted. Nothing that came after could overtake or erase that first good impression, she said the day after she and a second judge deemed Freel’s confection the Judge’s Choice winner in the adult open class category.
“I’ve never been a rhubarb person,” Harris said. “But this had such a great flavor — not too much sugar, and it really made the mouth pucker,” she said.
Harris also had sweet words for the whole-wheat bread that captured the Junior Judge’s Choice Award. Baked by 16-year-old Boone Pearson of Melrose, the texture and flavor made Harris declare she wished she could produce a loaf just like it.
“As soon as I tasted it, I said, ‘I want that recipe,’” she said.
A third contest, Bob’s Best Home-baked Bread, was sponsored by Bob’s Red Mill and required the baker to use one or more of the sponsor’s flours and/or other ingredients by the Milwaukie-based company. Marshal Okonek, 19, followed his grandmother’s suggestion and dug up a magazine recipe that snared first place among the Bob’s entries.
Far from being a novice with a mixing bowl, Okonek said this is the 10th year he’s entered food at the fair.
“Recently, it’s been bread, but I’ve entered a variety of things over the years,” said Okonek, who earned a Junior Judge’s Choice nod five years ago for his cinnamon swirl raisin bread.
After a few years of submitting cookies and pies to the fair, Okonek said the day came when his grandmother, Gayle Okonek of Myrtle Creek, decided it was time he learned to bake bread.
“I was at Grandma’s and she said, ‘I think you’re finally ready for this.’”
She should know. Her French bread recipe once netted Judge’s Choice at the fair. She’s also placed third in a previous Bob’s Red Mill-sponsored contest.
This time around, though, it was her grandson’s turn with the buttermilk-honey bread clipped from a magazine.
“The only thing I did differently was to brush melted butter over the top as it came out of the oven,” he said.
The other teen whose bread boosted him to the top prize in his category said he’s been baking about seven or eight years — in other words, nearly half his life.
Boone Pearson said he started out baking white breads, then switched to half white, half wheat. He said he decided to go for wheat this year because others told him they had trouble getting it to rise properly, and he wanted to see if he could achieve that without sacrificing flavor.
Evidently he did.
“This year I added eggs to make it more moist and everything, and I had my mom coaching me through it,” said Pearson, the eldest of four home-schooled siblings.
Pearson had other triumphs at the fair. Father Todd Pearson said his son took a blue ribbon in showmanship, a champion ribbon for his senior class and overall grand champion in showmanship for all age groups, all in the swine category.
The pig in question is Bilbo, a Yorkshire-Hampshire cross described by Boone Pearson as “very calm and curious.” In addition to raising pigs, Pearson likes to ride and train horses. He’s also restoring a 1967 Ford pickup he hopes to take to Graffiti Weekend next year.
It wasn’t bread, but pie that vaulted Freel to the top of the adult category for baked goods. His crust-making skills can be traced back a couple of decades to the time he was in the heating and air conditioning business in Toledo, Ohio.
He had a habit of throwing surplus apples into his van and offering the fruit to clients when he was doing service calls. One elderly woman named Eve Hiesler asked him why he didn’t make pies with the apples.
When Freel said he didn’t know how, Hiesler gave him her recipe for egg and vinegar pie crust and told him it was easy as — well, you know.
“With the rhubarb and raspberry filling, it was some of this and some of that until it looks and tastes right,” Freel said.
He hopes to keep up the legacy. Freel taught his granddaughter, 11-year-old Ryann Freel of Omaha, Nebraska, how to make the crust.
Perhaps someday Eve Hiesler’s crust will win top honors at the Douglas County Fair in Nebraska.
• You can reach Umpqua Food & Harvest Editor Tricia Jones at 541-957-4216 or firstname.lastname@example.org.