New ‘County Fair’ cookbook is both a festival of nostalgia and recipes

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There are few events that evoke sensory memories and nostalgia quite like a county fair. The sweet smell of cotton candy. The sound of children screaming with joy. The tinkling music of a carousel. The memorable sight of the winning giant pumpkin or blue ribbon pie. They all make indelible memories.

County fairs have always held a special place in the heart of award-winning food writer and photographer Liza Gershman. With 19 books and hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles to her credit, the Bay Area native finally had the chance to feature this topic in her new book, “County Fair: Nostalgic Blue Ribbon Recipes from America’s Small Towns.” (Pictures Publishing, $45).

Inside, you’ll find dozens of Blue Ribbon-winning recipes for regional specialties from all 50 states, plus interviews, pantry tips and, as promised, lots of nostalgia. Gershman’s vibrant photographs capture everything from caramel corn carousels, lemon meringue pies and pear jams.

“County Fair” by Liza Gershman

Amid peak county fair season — and with July 4 approaching — a sweet celebration of all 50 states seems like the way to go. California gets a shoutout with the Apricot Bars made by Jill Moritz for the Los Angeles County Fair, and the Golden Spice Cake with Orange Buttercream Frosting baked by Diane Davis for the Nevada County Fair that s is held in Grass Valley. There’s a recipe for banana bread muffins from Cindy Peterson that not only includes chocolate and nuts, but also blueberries, winner of the Sonoma County Fair.

And while James Baum’s Lemon Bars won triumph at a county fair in Pennsylvania, he credits the recipe to a beloved Bay Area baker. “I remember my great-grandmother making them when I visited her in Richmond with my grandmother,” he says in the book. “She would have a plate of it on the table as soon as we got to her house.”

Looking for a good 4th of July pie? Adding pastry stars to the latticework of an apple pie or the top crust of a peak season peach and raspberry pie might be just the ticket.

We recently spoke with Gershman about the book, the pies, and the irresistible raffle of a big county fair.

Q Why departmental fairs?

A. I’ve always been an avid lover of county fairs, Americana, and cooking. This book was a longtime dream project, and when I got the chance to work on it, I was over the moon. Due to the timing of the project – it premiered in 2020 – I was unable to travel across the United States. It actually made the book stronger in some ways or more personal to me, because the recipes came from research, friends, and friends of friends. The people pictured in the book are friends in my group, and the watercolor pages of beautiful fruit patterns were painted by my mother.

Q What’s your favorite thing to eat at the fair?

A. I love cotton candy and of course this book is all about the tasty products that contestants enter in the rewards contests. It is full of recipes for award-winning pies and cakes, jams and jellies, pickles, preserves and sweets. Apple pie is a classic that I can’t resist.

Q What are some of your own childhood memories about going to the fair?

A. I grew up going to the Sonoma County Fair and proudly entered sewing and photography contests. I volunteered with my family to work on the Hall of Flowers and painted a yellow brick road in the summer for the Wizard of Oz themed fair. The fair is always a happy time and a chance to see neighbors, friends and members of the local community come together and showcase personal projects, hobbies and passions in a beautiful way.

Q How did you find – and choose – the 80 award-winning recipes that you ultimately submitted?

A. It was a daunting process that took a lot of time and research, but the effort was so rewarding. I had the opportunity to speak with people from all over the United States and hear their stories.

Q Are there a few recipes from the book that really stood out to you or that surprised you?

A. The zucchini pie is the most surprising. It’s absolutely delicious, and I certainly wouldn’t have guessed it!

Q You’ve traveled to so many places – 47 US states and 55 countries. What are your favourites?

A. Oh, I love traveling so much and as exciting as being on the road, I always love coming home to the Bay Area. I really think we have some of the most beautiful scenery, interesting people and delicious food. We are truly blessed.

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