The winningest state fair entrant

About 12 years ago I wrote a story for the Nashville Banner on Nancy Johnson of White House Tennessee, who seemed at the time to be the winningest-ever state fair entrant.

In 1991 she entered 23 categories of pickles, preserves and baked goods, winning 13 of them. In 1992 she entered 34 categories and won 25 prizes, which she called “a good year.” In about 1997, she won $300 in prize money: $125 from Pillsbury’s pie contest and the rest from competitions that paid from $3 to $15. Do the math: that’s a lot of winning. Her biggest year was ‘75, when bumper crops in the garden let her enter 30 canned goods, along with nine baked goods. She won almost every category.

She was a great interviewee and a fascinating cook with a sure eye for a winning recipe. Everything she made, from biscuits to salsa, was first-rate. I still have and use three of her recipes. One is a two-alarm, very limey salsa that stands up well to canning. The second is a matchless blueberry muffin with a butter-and-sugar-dipped top. And the third is the best damn apple pie you’ve ever had, I don’t care who you are. It’s won prizes from Tennessee to England to California. 

This year I made Nancy Johnson’s Apple Orange Pie for the family Labor Day/August birthdays gathering. I used an apple I don’t see often, Wolf River, which I only ever find at the Howells’ stands in Green Hills. Wolf River is an early apple from South Carolina. I really love the flavor. It’s slightly flattened like York apple. This year they were a little underripe. I’ve never cooked with Wolf River apples before, only eaten them fresh. Fortunately, they cooked really well, holding their shape and texture and developing a nice flavor.

I always make the same pie pastry — 10 tablespoons of butter and shortening, 2 cups flour, 1 teaspoon salt, 4 tablespoons ice water — but this time I used too much shortening and the crust was very soft. You can see on the finished pie where it settled around individual pieces of apple, rather than acting as a lid. When cut, the pieces didn’t hold their shape — they were more like a cobbler. But it was still the best apple pie, I don’t care who you are.

I’ve been thinking about Nancy a lot lately, so when I go to the fair, I’ll have to stop at the baked goods and pickles to see whether she entered anything.

State Fair Winning Apple Orange Pie

  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 1 tablespoons flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon apple pie spice (or cinnamon)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 3 or 4 large cooking apples
  • 1 (2-crust) pie pastry
  • 1 egg white, beaten with 2 teaspoons water

Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium low heat. Stir in the flour and the spice, Add the sugar and juice. Bring to a boil, remove from the heat and set aside. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Peel and grate or chop the apples.

Arrange the pastry in a pie plate. Spoon the apples into the pastry. Pour the butter mixture over the apples. Top with the remaining crust, sealing the edges. Brush with the egg white mixture. Cut steam vents. Bake for 45 minutes. Makes 8 servings.