Well-removed from Big Tex and the Midway, past the Cotton Bowl, sits the Creative Arts Building at Fair Park. While it’s not the State Fair of Texas’ sexiest attraction, the sweeping structure is a hub for a relatively unknown subculture: the competitors.
Competitions at the State Fair are aplenty. Among the arts and crafts contests: painting, sketching, needlepoint and Lego architecture. Food-contest categories feature baking with KARO syrup, chili, chocolate, relish, jam, SPAM creations, bread baking and cooking with cheese, to name a few. Collections contest categories run the gamut from apothecary items and thimbles to sports memorabilia and pipes. There are fashion-design contests and diorama competitions. The list goes on and on. We tracked down several neighborhood residents who, through experience, understand the spirit of State Fair rivalry.
The Fair Family
For the Burton family of Oak Cliff, the Fair’s Creative Arts competition is a family thing.
Mary Jane Burton enters quilts. Her husband, Alex, was a wood turner and used to enter handmade wooden bowls. Their adult daughter, Mila Burton, who also lives in Oak Cliff, enters needlework.
Mila first entered two years ago after giving her mom a 5-by-5-inch cross-stitched butterfly. Mary Jane liked it so much that she entered it in the fair along with her quilts. The butterfly won fourth-place. All three Burtons won ribbons that year.
Mary Jane’s interest in Fair competitions started with quilting. It’s a hobby she always wanted to take up, and she started learning about 10 years ago, when she finally had time.
“It’s a journey,” she says. “The more you do, the more you realize you need to learn more because there are so many different ways of quilting, so many styles.”
This year, she’s entering a 72-by-79-inch quilt in a pattern called French braid. She thinks it’s quite good, if she does say so herself.
“You never know who you’re coming up against, though,” she says.
Mary Jane also is entering a doll-bed quilt in a difficult pattern called grandmother’s English garden.
She won a blue ribbon for the baby quilt she entered last year, and she also has won red and white, second and third, respectively, for other projects.
Mila’s entry this year is a 3-foot-by-1.5-foot needlepoint of the Virgin of Guadalupe. It was another gift to Mary Jane, who collects Madonnas.
For many years, Alex Burton, who died in September at 80, had an office in Exposition Park, and he was a judge several times in the chili cook-off. So they are Fair regulars.
One of Mila’s best State Fair memories took place not at the actual Fair but at the Bar of Soap, the bygone punk-rock dive bar/washateria in Expo Park.
“I had gone to the Fair with some friends, and it was raining,” she says. “So we went to Bar of Soap and dried our clothes, listened to music and drank beer. It was great. I miss that place.”
The Fair Fanatic
“I’m the biggest State Fair nerd ever,” says Jessica Buquoi of Winnetka Heights. “You would think I’m like an old lady because I get so into it.”
Buquoi started entering the pie bakeoff at the Fair when she was 25, and she says she’s usually the youngest competitor.
The hair stylist enters food competitions as well as collections. And her three-time, blue-ribbon-winning collection items are unusual. They’re Victorian-era hair receivers. Highly decorated and made of porcelain, they look like tissue boxes. Victorian women used them to store hair collected from their brushes, and they would use the old hair to make rats to get that Snooki-like height in their hairdos.
“It sounds gross, but there’s not hair in them now,” she says. “I have them displayed in my living room.”
This year, she’s also entering the maximum of two items in State Fair of Texas souvenir collections, a necklace from 1972 and a bottle, both featuring the likeness of Big Tex.
Buquoi also has entered the chili cook-off for about the past six years. That’s fun, she says, because it’s held on the eve of the Fair’s opening, and it adds to the excitement for her. Plus, the chili cook-off people, while dead serious about competition, create a sense of community.
Buquoi grew up in East Texas, and her parents took her to theFair when she was a kid, but they weren’t fanatical about it. Starting when she was around 13 years old, though, Buquoi found a way to get to the Fair’s opening day every year.
Now she buys a season pass annually and goes just about every day. She spends hours, literally days when you add it all up, in the Creative Arts Building.
“There’s a food contest every day, so even if I’m not in it, I like to go and support it,” she says.
Some competitions she does enter, of course.
Aside from the chili cook-off and the pie bake-off, Buquoi last year entered Central Market’s “Guess What’s Cookin’?” competition, where contestants are given a box of 16 ingredients and an hour to concoct something tasty using at least eight of them, all in front of a live audience.
Last year, the box included blueberries, almond butter, sweet potatoes, beets, apples and popcorn.
“I was definitely the youngest person,” she says.
She made a “caramel-apple-popcorn thing,” and she was the only contestant who used the popcorn, but she didn’t win.
The experience was so challenging and nerve-wracking that she swore she would never do it again.
“It was crazy,” she says. “I can’t believe I signed up again.”
Watch Buquoi compete in Central Market’s “Guess What’s Cookin’?” on Thursday, Oct. 11, at 9:30 a.m.