State Fair Winners Wayne Estenson and Paul Vandergon Share Their Experiences

Wayne Estenson canned his first pickle 35 years ago under the supervision of his future mother-in-law. “Before I could take her daughter out on a date, we would have to help pack cucumbers for pickling,” he recounts. To this day, pickles are his favorite canned food to eat.
Who knew that falling in love would lead to perennial entries at the Minnesota State Fair? “Canning has always been a family tradition, and we have our grandchildren learning the art and science behind canning,” he explains. “They sure enjoy the products.”

Estenson first entered the fair mostly for the sake of competition but also out of interest in the rules, science and food safety that are involved. He has entered numerous products in the fair over the past several years and has placed with dill pickles with garlic, beet pickles, bread and butter pickles, salsa, and traditional and mango barbeque sauces. Winning a ribbon last year, the mango barbeque sauce was a new recipe.

Estenson doesn’t give a second thought to sharing his secret to the perfect pickle. Each of his recipes uses a specific water, vinegar, salt and processing method, he says. Look for his barbeque sauce at this year’s fair. It’s called Sweet Heat, and can be found alongside several of his traditional items.

Sweet Success

An in-law was key to the state fair entry of Paul Vandergon, as well. He started beekeeping four years ago and was inspired to enter his products into the fair by the Minnesota Hobby Beekeeping Association, which encourages all its members to enter their creations. His brother-in-law helps him care for the bees that produce his annual entries.

Qualifications for honey entries are strict. Participants must submit 12 identical jars (or bears) of honey. Each must be the same, with no fingerprints or bubbles. “It’s a lot about presentation,” Vandergon says.  Maximum acceptable moisture content for any liquid honey is 18.6 percent; anything higher is disqualified.

During the past two years, Vandergon has entered one-pound jars of honey and 12-ounce bears of honey and beeswax. Last year, he took second place for his beeswax entry. This year, he plans to enter one-pound jars, 12-ounce bears, one pound of beeswax, a frame of capped honey and several jars of creamed honey.

Creamed honey is a fine, crystalized honey that makes spreading easier. It is made by introducing a rounded seed crystal into a batch of honey that is heated to 90 degrees. In time, the entire content of honey begins to transform into crystals of the same shape.

Vandergon keeps hives “in three apiaries near Little Falls, Minnesota, because they don’t allow bees in Maple Grove, unlike most other [towns], including Minneapolis.” He notes that multiple buildings in downtown Minneapolis have hives on the roofs. The presence of these city bees is fascinating in light of the struggles bees face even in more rural areas.

Vandergon says that his bees “struggle to stay alive in the midst of overuse of pesticides and lack of habitat, including road side ditches that are mowed for free hay.” Unfortunately, this winter, he lost 11 of his 13 hives to various causes, including virus-bearing varroa mites, which have devastated honey bee populations worldwide. “It is very hard to keep the bees alive in recent years,” he says.

Although Estenson and Vandergon have received multiple ribbons between them, the competition is stiff. Both categories (canned and preserved food) are populated by seasoned foodies, heritage recipes and legacy hives.

Pickle Envy

Just thinking about the Minnesota State Fair can make any mouth water with anticipation of new treats and novelty food items galore. Why wait until the fair opens to indulge? Enjoy this quick summertime lunch recipe, using your favorite crisp, flavorful pickle (no stick required).

Dill Pickle Bacon Grilled Cheese »

1-1/2 slices bacon
2 slices bread
1 Tbsp. butter
1 large pickle, sliced
2 slices cheddar cheese
1 oz. mozzarella cheese

Cook the bacon until it’s crisp, and drain it on paper towel. Remove most of the bacon grease from the pan. Butter one side of the bread, and place bread butter side down in the pan.

Top the bread with all ingredients, and cover with second slice of bread, butter side out. Cook over medium-low heat, flipping when cheese is melted and bread lightly toasted.

Don’t Miss
In the horticulture building, the Minnesota Hobby Beekeeping Association conducts scheduled demonstrations, opening a hive and extracting honey. It’s a rare site to see live. Don’t miss it!

Did you Know?
Submitting a food item for competition at the Minnesota State Fair is not an easy task.

In the canning category, participants must provide two identical jars, one for judges to open and the other to be placed on display.

No secrets allowed! Participants must be willing to reveal the secrets to their success. In addition, processing time and methods must be provided, along with the exact list ingredients and amounts.

Fair officials use the information to verify food safety and promise to shred all the documentation following the fair.