‘County Fair’ cookbook highlights award-winning recipes from across the country
Liza Gershman has been a fan of the Sonoma County Fair since she was a kid.
As a young girl, she entered the photography contest and sewing competitions and volunteered at the Hall of Flowers exhibits. Her mother, Nancy, a talented oil painter, won Best of Show awards for her art.
Gershman’s enthusiasm for county and state fairs, from the rides to the baking contests to the livestock displays, has continued and maybe only intensified in her adult years. In November, the author and photographer released her latest cookbook, celebrating not only the Sonoma County Fair, which starts Thursday, but the tradition of fairs across the United States.
“County Fair: Nostalgic Blue Ribbon Recipes from America’s Small Towns” (Images Publishing Group, November 2021) is a compilation of blue-ribbon-winning recipes from county fairs across the country, but it goes beyond the delicious simplicity of American pies, pastries, pickles and preserves. It’s a visual feast, with photos styled and shot by Gershman herself, and transports you to a warm summer day scented with cotton candy and kettle corn, too-sweet lemonade and a secret kiss atop the Ferris wheel.
“Fairs have always been a passion,” Gershman writes in the book’s introduction. “The cacophony of the big top ... the scents from the farm ... the sweetest pink cotton candy. It’s easy to get lost in the pavilions and the carnival and spend hours mesmerized by suckling pigs, horses racing, whirring Ferris wheels, hand-sewn quilts, homemade pies and mouthwatering pieces of fudge.”
By the time she set out to write “County Fair,” Gershman already had authored 19 cookbooks, but she hadn’t gotten around to her longtime desire to write a cookbook featuring prize-winning recipes from fair competitions. So when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out and she returned to Sonoma County from the East Coast to be closer to family, she realized it was the perfect time to work on a county fair passion project.
“Working on this book really cheered me up,” Gershman said in a recent interview with The Press Democrat. “It gave me something creative to focus on that brought me a lot of joy. It also gave me an opportunity to stay connected with family and friends who helped make it happen.”
Gershman said immense research went into creating the book, which includes almost 80 blue-ribbon-winning recipes. She read anything she could get her hands on about county fairs. To obtain the blue-ribbon recipes, she began by compiling an astounding list of all 3,000 county and state fairs in country. But during the pandemic, which put a hold on nearly every fair in America, it was difficult to reach past contestants in fair cooking and baking competitions.
Fortunately, local newspapers across the country had chronicled many of these fairs and competition winners. They turned out to be a great resource for Gershman to find blue-ribbon-winning recipes.
After choosing at least one winning recipe from each U.S. state, Gershman enlisted friend Jennifer McMurry, a pastry chef and currently the executive chef at Kivelstadt Cellars, to help with recipe testing and development. Another friend, Marissa Miller, assisted with recipe formatting, photo shoots and production. Gershman’s mother, Nancy, created the beautiful watercolor illustrations throughout the book, while friends and family members served as photography models.
To create a sense of nostalgia through her photography, Gershman sourced vintage bakeware, cooking tools and textiles from antique shops in Sonoma County, including Yankee Girl Antiques in Petaluma and Whistle Stop Antiques in Santa Rosa. Then she sought out local vintage-style kitchens to serve as a backdrop for many of the desserts.
“A huge part of this book is how essential county fairs are to their communities,” Gershman said. “And honestly, I couldn’t have made this book without the support and encouragement of my community.”
As important generators of revenue and employment — for many months before opening day — fairs can be a big boon to local communities. Tawny Tesconi, former CEO of the Sonoma County Fair and involved with the fair industry for more than 30 years, said fairs also give people a chance to shine. As manager of the community exhibits at the Sonoma County Fair, Tesconi oversaw the extensive food and art competitions, which could see upward of 30,000 entries in a single year.
“People could get incredibly competitive!” Tesconi remembered. “They would submit 40 to 50 items each — jams, jellies, canned vegetables, baked goods — in all flavors and categories. Some people would get up at 2 a.m. to bake everything fresh and have it ready in time for the competition later that day. But it’s really an opportunity for people to build esteem and showcase what they can do.”