Without food, it wouldn't be Fair.

Indian fry bread, corn on the cob, corn on the dog, barbecue, pizza, fish and chips . . . .Their combined aroma is a sensory souvenir included in the price of admission at the annual Utah State Fair.

And while the masses line up to purchase fair food - elsewhere in the Fairpark - crowds of curious folks who appreciate the art of "slow-cooked" homemade dishes are following each cook-off with great interest.

The majority of cooking contests take place in the kitchen atmosphere of what used to be the Home Arts Building. Here, entrants can line up and go "dough-to-dough" for prize money and prestige.

What used to be known as the Home Arts Building has in recent years become the Zion Building. Visit the fair today, and you'll find cooking competitions in the "Lustre Craft Zion Building." It's like this: a generous sponsor gets a building named after itself. Like the "plane" name of the Delta Center.

Lustre Craft (West Bend's topof the line cookware) has been a major contributor to the culinary side of the fair. Hence . . . Home Arts in 1998 is the Lustre Craft Zion Building.

Each contest is judged by foodies - writers, home economists, professional chefs and local celebrities.

Tastings are a major part of a food editor's routine. On the docket for 1998 is Fleischmann's Best Holiday Yeast Bread, C&H Sugar Co.'s Kid's Cookie Contest, Lustre Craft International Veggie Cook-Off, Rhodes Bake-N-Serv Dough Sculpture and recipe contests. And My fav . . . the National Best SPAM Recipe Competition.

For those of us who write about food, tasting is everything. And sometimes, though not often - every now and then Fair fare means fair food.

But that's rare at Utah's fair.

The most UNFAIR judging adventure took place a couple of years ago when I was on the panel of SPAM judges.

If you've never attended a "clash of the cooks," here's the visual: The audience faces an area containing stoves and long work counters. Basically, it's one long kitchen.

Overhead, mirrors are tipped "just so" to give onlookers an opportunity to see everything during the demonstration.

So here we were, grazing along, nibbling SMALL bites from each SPAMmed dish.

And then . . . entry No. 3 . . . CREAMED PEAS AND SPAM.

It was just TOO MUCH TO HANDLE . . . let alone taste!

But the creamed pea creator was on the front row, staring intently at each facial twitch, nostril nuance and pencil stroke as we scored each entry.

True to the Food Editor's Code ("eat - then be sweet"), I took a big bite of the Pea/SPAM Delight, smiled, and casually turned around.

Maintaining a mature professionalism, I surreptitiously opened my mouth and let it drop to the floor. When I turned around to face the crowd, I realized that the overhead mirror had given the audience a perfect view. Oy!

There's always someone who tops your nightmare in nibbling, and Karen Haram of the San Antonio Express-News takes the cake.

She tells of judging a "menudo" contest. Her Food Editor's Code was permanently damaged after she had to taste 250 versions of cooked tripe.

This year, I BEGGED to judge SPAM. It's coming on Friday, Sept. 18.

Judging food is a rather bizarre part of my job. And just being a food editor doesn't instantly give that food person a perfect palate. We're human, folks. So to the nice lady whose cream peas and SPAM I shunned, I apologize. What I did was wrong.

Just please don't show up again on Friday with creamed anything!

But some gratifying moments do occur while judging food contests at the fair. Last Saturday, Alta Club's chef Dondi Larson, Utah State Extension Agent Becky Lowe and I had to select the best recipes for the Lustre Craft International 1998 Veggie Cook-Off.

LeeAnn Busch won the grand prize with a recipe her mother begged her to enter. Busch, a Sandy resident, almost didn't make the prize-winning salad, but at the last minute, entered. Thanks, Mom! Wow, is it good!

Cooking contests are an opportunity to test "home cookin' " skills in friendly (well, usually!) competition. Here's an observation from an extremely well-fed judge: "It seems to me that there are so few entries - there's a good chance to win!"

You can still catch a few cooking contests at this year's Utah State Fair.

Check 'em out . . . and then call your mother.

*****

Additional Information

STATE FAIR FOOD CONTESTS

(Located in the Lustre Craft Zion Building at the Utah State Fair Fairpark, 900 E. North Temple.)

Tuesday, Sept. 15th, 6:30 PM - Softasilk Championship Cake Award

Thursday, Sept. 17th, 6:30 p.m. - Rhodes Bake-N-Serv Dough Sculpture Contest

Thursday, Sept. 17th, 8 p.m. - Rhodes Bake-N-Serv Frozen Dough Recipe Contest

Friday, Sept. 18th, 6:30 p.m. - National Best Spam Recipe Competition

Saturday, Sept. 19th, 5 p.m. - Country Crock Muffin Contest

Saturday, Sept. 19th, 5:30 p.m. (Judging) - Utah Farm Bureau Great American Dutch Oven Cook-Off (in Specialty Tent)

For futher information on cooking contests, call the Utah State Fair at 801-538-8400.

*****

RECIPES

MOM'S TEXAS FAVORITE

3 ears fresh corn on the cob

1 14 1/2-ounce can black beans, drained

2 medium fresh tomatoes, chopped

1 large avocado, chopped

1/4 to 1/2 cup fresh cilantro, minced

Juice of 1/2 small lime

Boil fresh corn until tender. Using a sharp knife, cut corn off cob, scraping cob to release juices. Mix corn, black beans, tomatoes and avocado in medium mixing bowl. Add cilantro and lime juice. May be served chilled or at room temperature as side dish or with blue corn chips as a dip. Serves 6.

- Each serving contains 199 calories, 6g fat, 32g carb, 17mg sodium, 9g protein, 0mg cholesterol.

- From LeeAnn Busch, Sandy, Lustre Craft International 1998 Veggie Cook-Off.

VEGOVERS

2 packages frozen puff pastry

8 ounces cream cheese, softened

4 ounce sour cream

4 ounce shredded swiss cheese

1 teaspoon salt (then to taste after adding the saute mixture)

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon garlic powder (then to taste after saute mixture)

3 tablespoons dried parsley

4 tablespoons dried chives

3 finely julienned carrots

1/2 cup frozen peas

1 stalk finely chopped broccoli

1 cup sliced fresh mushrooms

1 medium onion, finely chopped

3 tablespoons butter

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

Cream together in medium mixing bowl the softened cream cheese, sour cream, shredded swiss cheese, salt, pepper, garlic powder, dried parsley and dried chives.

Steam the carrots, peas and broccoli until just tender.

Saute mushrooms and chopped onion in 8-inch skillet until mushrooms are dark and onions are transparent. Fold vegetables into cream cheese mixture.

Cut each sheet of puff pastry into six squares. Put approximately 4 ounces of mixture in center of each square. Fold pastry in half and seal with a fork. Poke 3 vents in the top of each pastry. Place on a parchment paper-lined cookie sheet and bake at 390 for 20-25 minutes. Makes 24.

- Each serving contains 238 calories, 17g fat, 17g carb, 5g protein, 274mg sodium, 19mg cholesterol.

- From JoAnne R. Orton, Taylorsville, Lustre Craft International 1998 Veggie Cook-Off Finalist

BLACK WALNUT TOFFEE BARS

2 cups flour

1/2 cup confectioner's sugar

1 cup (2 sticks) butter

1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 6-ounce package toffee chips

1 cup black walnuts or regular walnuts, chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. In a medium-size bowl, combine the flour and confectioner's sugar. Cut in the butter. Press into a 9- by 13-inch baking dish. Bake for 15 minutes. While the crust is baking, in a medium-size bowl, beat the milk, egg, vanilla and salt. Stir in the toffee chips and walnuts. Spread over the cooked crust and bake for 18 to 25 minutes. Cool completely, then cut into 2-inch bars. Makes 20 bars.

Note: For 61 years, the Ozark Empire Fair has celebrated the local agriculture of southwestern Missouri and the creativity of the region's craftspeople. The craft and food divisions are very popular, receiving thousands of entries each year.

- Each bar contains 290 calories, 17g fat, 30g carb, 5g protein, 191mg sodium, 41mg cholesterol.

- From Leisa J. Lower, Ozark Empire Fair, Springfield, Mo.

LEMON BLUEBERRY TEA BREAD

1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries

1 tablespoon plus 12/3 cups flour, divided

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened

11/2 cups sugar, divided

2 eggs

1 tablespoon plus 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice, divided

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup milk

1 tablespoon grated lemon rind

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Toss the blueberries with the 1 tablespoon flour and set aside. In a large bowl, cream the butter with 1 cup of the sugar until fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. In a separate bowl, combine the remaining 1 2/3 cups flour, baking powder and salt. Add the flour mixture and the milk alternately to the creamed mixture. Fold in the blueberries, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, and lemon rind.

Pour into a greased and floured 9- by 5-inch loaf pan. Bake for about 1 hour, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool in the pan for 10 minutes before removing to a wire rack. In a small pan, combine the remaining 1/2 cup sugar and the remaining 1/4 cup lemon juice. Heat until boiling, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Brush on the slightly cooled bread and cool completely before cutting. Makes 1 loaf.

Blue Ribbon Tip: Always store bread at room temperature or in the freezer, not in the refrigerator. Refrigerated bread can go stale in as little as a day. Bread goes stale most rapidly at temperatures just above freezing. A deep chest-type or commercial freezer has more stable temperatures than a small refrigerator freezer. To protect baked goods from freezer burn, wrap well in plastic wrap, then aluminum foil, then a zipper-locked bag with the air squeezed out.

- Each serving contains 298 calories, 10g fat, 51g carb, 4g protein, 251mg sodium, 25mg cholesterol.

- From Karen Jean Kotick; Canfield Fair, Canfield, Ohio

BROWN ONION RICE CASSEROLE

1 4-ounce can mushroom pieces with liquid or 1/2 cup sliced fresh mushrooms

1/3 cup butter, melted

1 cup white rice, uncooked

1 cup chopped Vidalia onion

1/2 cup chopped green bell pepper

1 11-ounce can beef consomme plus 1/2 can water

Freshly ground black pepper

Pinch of garlic powder

3 to 4 drops Tabasco sauce

To prepare in the microwave, place all the ingredients in a microwave-safe bowl and cook for 20 minutes. Stir and cook for 15 minutes more, or until the rice is done and all the liquid is absorbed. To prepare on the stovetop, if you're using fresh mushrooms, saute in the butter for 5 minutes. Place all the ingredients in a saucepan and cover. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook until all the liquid is absorbed, about 30 minutes. Serves 6.

Note: Vidalia Onion Festival, Vidalia, Ga.

In 1931, farmer Moses Coleman planted some onions in Vidalia that proved unexpectedly sweet. Word of these treasures spread, and both production of and demand for the Vidalia Sweets grew. Farmers sought to preserve the uniqueness of their crop by acquiring what would amount to a legal patent on the onions. In 1986, Georgia's Legislature limited the growing area to 20 Georgia counties.

Today in southeastern Georgia, warm spring breezes carry the aroma of newly harvested Vidalia onions to folks throughout this famous onion growing region, letting them know it's time to prepare for the annual onion festival. Each April, approximately 60,000 visitors come to enjoy a parade, the Miss Onion Pageant, an onion run and an onion cook-off.

- Each serving contains 187 calories, 11g fat, 20g carb, 3g protein, 421mg sodium, 28mg cholesterol.

- From Ulma Lee Anderson, Vidalia Onion Festival, Vidalia, Ga.