The Itasca County Fair is this week in Grand Rapids, so bread bakers and cookie makers from across the county have been busy in their kitchens. They're all taking their best shot at a blue ribbon, and they all know there's one woman to beat. Her name is Bea Foix, and she's been winning 40 or 50 blue ribbons a year at the Itasca County Fair since 1968.
The doors opened at the Home Activities Building on Tuesday. A couple dozen Itasca County grandmothers were waiting in line. They were checking in with their hand-made quilts, canned green beans, and butter cookies.
The building is lined with glass cases. By the time the judges get here, the cases will be full. Thursday morning, the doors will open and everyone will hurry back to see if there's a ribbon hanging from any of their entries. The person with the most blue ribbons gets a cookbook.
In the past 35 years, Bea Foix has won the cookbook 34 times. The one year she didn't win, she was sick. Some years, when you walk around the Home Activities Building, you get the feeling that Bea Foix has entered as much stuff in the fair as everyone else combined.
Bea Foix rolled her car up to the Home Activities Building late in the afternoon on Tuesday. She's a five-foot-tall, grey-haired grandma. She'd been baking pies all morning, and she was kind of shy about showing off her handiwork.
"Baked goods all in there, all in the back seat there," she said, pointing to the car's back seat, stuffed with boxes. "I've got cookies and I've got nationality foods and I got cakes and I got pies, and I got candy and breads. Yeast breads and quick breads. Donuts. Whatever you bake."
Then there was the load in the trunk.
"We have flowers and canned goods," she said. "Jams and jellies and veggies and pickles."
Bea Foix got the boxes and tupperware containers hauled into the Home Activities Building. She and her daughter and one of the fair officials set about putting a label on each entry.
Each entry sat on a paper plate, wrapped in cellophane. The women covered an entire counter with baked goods - entries in 40 different categories - and they had only unpacked half of Bea Foix's boxes. They hadn't even started on the canned goods.
Bea Foix says it's a lot of work. She starts baking two weeks before the fair. She freezes the cookies, because they can take it. She always bakes the pies the morning the fair opens. Some days she works for 12 hours.
But she gets a little help.
"My husband washes dishes," she says with a big laugh. "He's good at that."
She says her kids used to work in the kitchen with her, but they weren't helping her.
"They always had their own things to do," she says. "They were entering stuff in 4-H, and with seven of them, it kept us all busy."
Bea Foix is passing along some of her secrets. She's led her local 4-H club for decades, and she's taught a lot of kids how to bake and how to can. And some of her grandkids enter cookies and a few other things at the Itasca County Fair. But just about nobody enters as many categories as Bea Foix.
"She's a generation of cooks that probably started at the fair way back years ago," says Jan Soltis, the superintendent of the Home Activities Building. "This what makes the fair the fair - you know, people like her."
Soltis says there's a generation gap. There are only about half a dozen exhibitors in their 20's or 30's. Soltis says younger folks just don't know the things Bea Foix knows.
"Unfortunately," Soltis says, "today a lot of people don't take the time to can, especially, and bake like the people in her generation do."
Bea Foix says she's not sure why she does it.
"It's fun," she says.
She's been saying, "This is the last year," for several years now, but she keeps coming back. She says she's just too competitive to give it up.
This week, she and her husband are camping at the Itasca County Fair, just like they do every year. She and her family run the 4-H children's barn.
She'll take a break from the children's barn Thursday morning to go to the Home Activities Building and see how many ribbons she's won this year.
She won't make any guesses. She says she's not even sure how many things she entered this year. She hasn't had time to count.