Lisa Prince loves food and she loves North Carolina. She is the host of Flavor, NC, a show on UNC-TV that celebrates North Carolina agriculture and food. She appears regularly on WRAL-TV to make dishes with North Carolina ingredients.
And, for the duration of the N.C. State Fair, Prince will oversee a dozen cooking contests in which home cooks square off to see who has the best dishes that incorporate ingredients such as peanuts, apples, pecans and pork. Prince, a part-time marketing specialist with the N.C. Department of Agriculture, is in her 10th year overseeing the fair’s cooking contests. The N.C. State Fair begins today and will run through Oct. 27.
“I love food and I love cooking,” Prince said this week as she was setting up for the cooking contests that will be held each day throughout the fair. “I get inspired by the ideas I see here.”
The contests are divided by ingredient, with one contest focused on recipes using beef and another contest focused on recipes using sweet potatoes. In addition to eight contests involving North Carolina commodities, the fair hosts the early rounds of national contests for sponsors such as Spam and Pillsbury. The North Carolina winners of those contests may go on to compete nationally.
There are some regulars who compete every year, starting in the summer when the contest details are first released, Prince says. They start working on dishes then, trying to perfect them in time for the fall contests at the fair.
“Some of them are very good friends,” Prince says. “Some of them are very competitive.”
Prince, a 1993 graduate of NC State, is encouraged by the new contestants she sees every year. She was worried at one point that the contestants might age out, and that cooking contests would become a relic of times past. But she says there are plenty of contestants in their 30s and 40s, and several families who have younger generations of contestants.
“It gives those people who are not on t.v. a venue to showcase their talent,” she says. “They love winning that blue ribbon.”
Anywhere from 15 to 100 people compete in each of the individual cooking contests. Prince says the sweet potato contests always draws a lot of entries. “In North Carolina, we love our sweet potatoes,” she says. “Everyone thinks they have a great sweet potato recipe.”
Prince says contestants also love to make desserts, with roughly 100 entrants in the Pillsbury pie contest this year. Prince has a fondness for contests for children who cook, often carrying on a long family tradition. She says a few men enter each year, often in the beef and pork contests.
Prince has seen a few flops (a cantaloupe pie from three years ago that didn’t quite set comes to mind) and plenty of hits (a blue cheese-pecan-apple dip from five or six years ago is still one of her favorites). She welcomes the attention the contests bring to cooking.
“They are developing recipes that can be shared,” she says. “I hope it inspires people to cook at home.”
While traditional Southern cooking once dominated the contests, Prince says she has seen a new emphasis on healthy cooking with fresh ingredients that mirrors what’s happening at seasonal and farm-to-table restaurants throughout the state.
“North Carolina is now such a mecca for food, on the cutting edge of flavor,” she says. “The contestants are picking up on that and stepping outside the box.”
Prince grew up on a family farm in Fuquay-Varina, N.C., and was a regular at the fair long before she got involved with the cooking contests. So she has her favorite fair foods, trying to get at least one each day during the Fair’s run. One day it’s a foot-long hot dog, the next day it may be a funnel cake. She looks forward to getting an ear of corn and splitting a giant turkey leg with friends.
She also enjoys the deep fried Oreos, but says, “You take one bite and you’re done. My advice is to split it with someone, maybe even three or four people.”