I Judged Us Lucky

Mark Docter, producer of fine bottled dressings

Mark Docter, producer of fine bottled dressings

I started tasting, clipboard in hand, at 10:20 this morning, and finished at 1:40, having tasted products at 38 booths that offered savory foods. Most booths had multiple products, and while we judges were not required to taste all products, I tried most. Lots and lots and lots of cheese spreads, sauces, dressings, salsas, a few sausages, meatballs, bacon, ham, crunchy veggies, aged cow and goat cheese, and pasta.

I had fun, and I had lots of conversation about what it is like to produce food for the retail market. I asked a lot of questions about what Kentucky-grown ingredients people use, and most of the answers were "Not much yet, but we want to." A beer cheese producer needs 1000 pounds of cheddar a week, and has not found a Kentucky producer who can meet that demand. A dressing vendor needs a lot of honey at $2 a pound to make the numbers work. Sauces and dressings and chutneys featuring tamarind, mango, Meyer lemon, ginger, and pineapple cannot be Kentucky based, but I have hope for the ones that showcase blackberry, peach, and strawberry.

Quite a few barbecue and hot sauce-makers grow their own cayenne or buy from nearby growers. Only the wonderful Maria Louisa Salsa, as far as I could tell, relies on Kentucky tomatoes. That surprised me. The pipeline of tomatoes and cheese into Kentucky must be enormous, and these are products our growers can, eventually. provide.

Kentucky Specialty Sauces

Kentucky Specialty Sauces

The great fun for me? Meeting people with ardent commitment to their products and their customers, discovering some products that are new to me, and rediscovering the goodness of outstanding producers like Sapori d'Italia (which opens a storefront on Romany Road in Lexington tomorrow), Nancy's Fancy Cheddar Snaps, and Lexington Pasta.

I enjoyed tasting the cured, smoked country ham and bacon from Browning's Country Hams in Paris, which were new to me, but not new in any other way. Similarly, each sauce and chutney at Kentucky Specialty Sauces seemed to me to boast particularly complex and fine flavor, honed over years in the business, though I tasted them for the first time today.

Mark Docter, of Dr. Dressings, is just launching his business, offering delicious dressings designed to get us all to eat more vegetables and love them. Believe me -- with the Miso Vinaigrette, a mysteriously complex taste, given its short ingredient list, I suspect discarded roof shingles could seem delectable.

While judging, and yesterday while writing guest blog posts that will soon be up on Rupp Arena Blog, I missed nearly all of the fine demonstrations that ringed the exhibit space. Canning, making pasta from scratch, making a complete Sunday Supper, sharpening knives correctly, learning some basic butchering skills -- these were only a few of the practical, sensible, invigorating topics.

I'm already looking forward to next year.