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Spokane County Interstate Fair off and running

People sometimes like to complain that nothing ever changes at the Spokane County Interstate Fair, but if Helen Samsel wasn’t there to judge cakes, pies and cookies, it just wouldn’t be right.

When the 2011 fair opened on Friday, the venerable home economist was there, ready to discern the good from the bad in baking, just as she has for 58 years.

“I love it,” Samsel said. “I’m just like an old workhorse. When the fair starts, I am ready to judge food.”

You’d think she’d be sick of it by now, but with the exception of that rancid peanut in some peanut brittle several years ago, the 86-year-old nutritionist has managed to keep her appetite for the job.

On Friday, Samsel judged three contests: The Fleischmann’s Yeast Bake for the Cure, the Karo Perfect Pie Contest and the Ghirardelli Chocolate Championship.

Entries are judged on flavor, texture, creativity and – please don’t forget – appearance. You would be surprised how many potential blue-ribbon baked goods fall short for want of presentation, Samsel said.

And at the Spokane County Fair and Expo Center, Samsel’s is the last word, according to fellow volunteers around the judging tables.

“We all have to fight to get to work with her,” said Elaine Cole, who has assisted Samsel for the past five years.

Samsel, who graduated in home economics from the University of Montana in 1947, learned to judge as a teenager in 4-H, according to The Spokesman-Review archives. She has judged at the Spokane County Interstate Fair and the North Idaho Fair, among others in the region.

One of the secrets of her success is not to let her own culinary prejudices interfere with judging. Each family’s tastes are different.

“You have to use some scientific sense about it,” Samsel said between sips of water or coffee to cleanse her palate.

In all those years of judging, was there one dish that stood out above the others?

“Years ago, there was an apple pie with bourbon it, and my goodness! Was that a good pie,” she said.

This year, the Ghirardelli winner was a chocolate mint fantasy cake baked by Meleah Meltingtallow.

“The texture was elegant, and the combination of chocolate and mint made beautiful music,” Samsel said.

As long as Samsel has her good health, which she of course attributes to good nutrition, she will be back to judge next year.

“It’s a fun job, and I really enjoy it,” she said.