Food Competitions, Cheese, and Land-grant Universities

Meghan Burke (left) and Emily Langenberg (right), two recent Michigan State University graduates, demonstrate some cheesy cuisine recipes at the Test Kitchen of the 2012 Campus and Community program. Photo by Kurt Dewhurst

As a Festival curator, I am always interested in creative and culturally appropriate foodways demonstrations.  Staging food competitions at the Festival probably dates back further than my tenure as curator (my first program was the Massachusetts program in 1988), but the first one I can recall organizing was a pie judging during the 1991 Family Farm program. Also worth mentioning are the great crab soup cook-off at the 2004 Mid-Atlantic Maritime program and the Welsh cake judging at the 2009 Wales Smithsonian Cymru program. The idea behind these competitions is to showcase products and/or recipes unique to the featured state, region or country and to pit excellent cooks against one another in a friendly competition. Often guest judges are recruited, such as Richard Kurin, once the director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and now undersecretary for art, culture, and history at the Smithsonian.

This year, we will feature a cheddar cheese competition pitting three of the land-grant universities against one another. Dairy programs and products are a very big deal at many land-grant universities across the country, and they are extremely proud of their cheeses. We are keeping the identities of the three competing universities a secret (for the moment) in order to prevent influencing the potential judges.

Guest judges will taste each cheese in turn, receiving some water and an apple slice in between each tasting (which apparently is what the professional cheese judges do).  A scoring sheet has been devised by yours truly after some internet research on cheese judging, which includes the categories of flavor, texture and body, and appearance.  Within these categories they will find such fine-tuned criteria as “nuttiness” and “crumble,” which will have to be explained to the amateur judges.  The criteria will have a simple scoring mechanism, and at the end a winner will be declared.

Come and witness this historic and fun-filled cheese competition at the Test Kitchen demonstration area in the Campus and Community program on Friday, July 6 at 5:00 p.m., and again on Sunday, July 8, at 2:30 p.m.

Betty Belanus is the curator of Campus and Community: 150 Years of Public and Land-grant Universities and the USDA. She has curated many Smithsonian Folklife Festival programs including Massachusetts (1988), Family Farms in the Heartland (1991), Working at the Smithsonian (1996), African Immigrants to Metropolitan D.C. (1997), New Hampshire (1999), Water Ways: Mid-Atlantic Maritime Communities (2004), The Roots of Virginia Culture (2007), and Wales Smithsonian Cymru (2009).