Food is often the primary connection people have with the N.C. State Fair. They can’t wait to get back each year to get a giant turkey leg, some free hush puppies or the latest deep-fried concoction.
Food and the fair go hand-in-hand for Natalie Liles, as well. But in her case, she has usually been the one providing the food.
About two decades ago, some of her friends suggested that Liles should consider entering some of her baked goods in the contests at the State Fair. “You’re such a good baker,” they told her.
Liles, a 1981 graduate of NC State, took the advice and entered something in the baked goods category. (She can’t recall exactly what her first entry was, but says it was probably a cake, cookies or a quick bread.) Her entry was good enough to win a ribbon for third place. And Liles was hooked.
“It gives you more incentive, to see if you can win a blue ribbon,” she says.
Liles entered baking contests for years, and even got her kids involved in juniors contests. The family’s first visit to the fair each year was loaded with anticipation, as they went to find out how their entries had fared. Win or lose, Liles and her family always had a good time.
“You make a lot of friends, and you teach kids how to win and lose,” she says. “It’s just a fun, family time.”
About 10 years ago, Liles started helping with the cooking contests. A retired social services worker, Liles helps get the display cabinets set up before the fair, helps keep entries organized for the judges and just about anything else that is needed to make things work for the entrants and the visitors who come to see the entries. She is part of a small army of part-time workers whose efforts largely stay behind-the-scenes.
“I love it,” she says. “Everyone is so nice.”