"Do you know they have contests for kids your age?" Merry said with an infectious lilt to her voice. "You could do something like this, too! Just go to www.contestcook.com and look under the junior division. There's lots there to choose from."
For Merry, interacting with bakers - young and not-so-young - is part of the appeal of the National Festival of Breads, held June 8, 2019, in Manhattan, Kansas. And this year, the third time was the charm for the Newhall, California, baker, who walked away with the top prize in the Food Blogger division of the contest with her Blackberry Ginger Speculaas Danish Wreath. (More on the home cook division winner, Rachel Hubsmith, in the next blog post.)
Merry's enthusiasm and personality bubbled out just like the blackberries bubbled out from the wreath during baking. Sharing her passion with young bakers comes naturally. She enjoys baking with her seven grandchildren when she's not competing.
|Blackberry Ginger Speculaas Danish Wreath - Photo from National Festival of Breads website|
|Photo from National Festival of Breads|
Sharing the legacy of baking and recipes is a central theme for Merry. She began her blog, A Merry Recipe, after she began competing in baking contests in 2009. After 10 years on the competitive cooking circuit, she plans to revisit some of those early posts. She hopes to retake some of the early photos and make sure that the winning recipes she's entered in contests all over the country will be easily accessible.
|Merry used a thermometer to check "doneness" on her wreath.|
|Merry sprinkled fresh thyme over the freshly-baked wreath after she removed it from the oven.|
"I've been watching The Great British Baking Show, and they feature showstoppers, so that's what I developed for my entry this year."
Win or lose, this was going to be Merry's final year in the National Festival of Breads competition. Once a baker has competed three times, they are no longer eligible. That's not to say she's done with competitions. She is a seasoned pro in that arena.
In 2014, she was selected as a finalist in the 47th Annual Pillsbury Bake-Off, winning the Gluten Free Award for her Herbs and Seeds Parmesan Crackers recipe. Also in 2014, she was one of the five finalists on the Rachael Ray show, Great American Cookbook Competition. In 2015, she competed on Season 1 of Food Network's Clash of the Grandmas, making it to the final round of the Thanksgiving-themed show. She has also appeared on and competed in the World Food Championships.
Merry admits the cooking competition world becomes kind of like a "sorority." She knew almost all the finalists at the bread competition this year and had competed against them before.
"These events become as much a reunion as they do a competition," Merry said. "I always enjoy reconnecting with everyone."
|Photo from Kansas Wheat at the Joe & Geena Kejr farm near Brookville.|
This was Merry's third Field to Flour tour. But the experience always reminds her that a premium flour is worth the extra money.
"I'm a southern California girl," she told me. "When I go into my grocery store and pay a few more dollars for the premium flour instead of the store brand that's on sale, I remember those trips to a Kansas wheat field. I remember the people of Kansas - especially their commitment and their passion to produce a quality product. When I think about all the hands the wheat touches from the field to the grocery store, I realize what a bargain it is."
|Kansas Wheat photo|
|Kansas Wheat photo - Merry Graham, food blogger division winner, and RaChelle Hubsmith, home cook division winner (More on RaChelle next time.)|
Randy took a shift, so I could go inside and cool off. I spent part of that time talking to all eight contestants and taking some photos so I could blog about it this week.
When I got back, we had another special visitor to our Wheel of Wheat station. Willie the Wildcat pondered his answer ...
With all the gluten-free promotion and companies marketing "non-GMO" to consumers, it's important for those of us in production agriculture to tell our stories. Goodness knows, popular restaurants and so-called nutrition experts aren't shy about doing it. (For the record, there is no GMO wheat commercially available at this time. And yes, those with celiac disease must avoid gluten. However, many of those who don't have celiac disease avoid gluten based on inaccurate information from non-medical professionals who make unsubstantiated claims.)
In 1870, 50 percent of the U.S. population was directly involved in agriculture. Today, farm families comprise less than 2 percent of the population. A lot of the kids I talked to didn't even know what kind of machine harvests wheat. So that's why it was important to volunteer and talk to little consumers and their families about wheat.
|Photo from Merry Graham's website as she was practicing before the breads festival.|
For her champion bread, Merry receives tuition to attend a hands-on baking class at a King Arthur Flour Baking School in Norwich, Vermont or Skagit Valley, Washington, along with a $1,500 check for travel and lodging expenses. She also receives a one-year supply of Red Star® Yeast, another major contest sponsor.
More from the National Festival of Breads next time!