State fair judgesJam session: Judging of locally made jam/jelly/preserves at the D.C. State Fair.Photo courtesy of Mr T in DC via Flickr

Can a state that’s not a state have a state fair?

Until now, deep-fried Twinkies (or worse; see Grist’s slide show), Ferris wheels, and pie-eating contests have been denied the nearly 600,000 residents of the District of Columbia, who also hold the distinction of being the only jurisdiction in the Lower 48 that pays federal income taxes while having no voting representation in Congress.

Congress still treats us as its private plantation. But as of this year, we do have an agricultural fair, thanks to a community gardener and food blogger who wondered why she had to take her favorite cherry tomatoes across the Potomac to Virginia to be judged. She decided it was high time D.C. had a fair of its own.

Ed wth his zukesThe author and his winning jar.And I’m glad she did. On Saturday, my zucchini bread-and-butter pickles won first place for the best D.C.-grown food product in the entire federal enclave. How appropriate, I thought, that these zucchini should grow in an urban kitchen garden just five blocks from the fair grounds, and barely a mile from Michelle Obama’s garden at the White House.

But the kudos all go to Amelia Showalter, author of the Gradually Greener blog, who not only imagined a state fair where none had existed before, but organized a host of volunteers to pull it off flawlessly.

Showalter’s idea captivated the Internet news mavens here in the nation’s capital in recent weeks and created enough buzz to lure a throng of canners, picklers, and pie bakers. There were 20 entries in the jelly and jams contest, 25 for pickles, another 35 for pies, and 40 cupcake submissions. A contest for best home-brewed beer drew individuals as well as teams from all over town for judging that took place at a local pub the night before. (The winner was a German black beer said to go down like liquid pumpernickel.)

It was all folded into Columbia Heights Day, a festival celebrating the local neighborhood, where kids had moon bounces and a tent filled with face painting, cookie decorating, and storytelling fun. There was a community dog show (won by a handsome Airedale terrier), political candidates, rock music, barbecued chicken, and locally-made fresh fruit popsicles.

No funnel cake, pigs or chickens. But we did have some alpacas on display.

In fact, I did not win first prize in any of the categories I entered. My green tomato jam with cinnamon and the green tomato mincemeat we love so much didn’t even place. Ditto for our beloved lacto-fermented, spicy Cajun pickles. The best I could do in that category was third for the aforementioned bread-and-butter zucchini.

It was all zucchini, all day for me. An heirloom Italian zucchini I grew this year tied for second-biggest vegetable, behind a city-grown butternut squash that tipped a digital scale at nearly five pounds. The same zucchini — at 12 and one-eighth inches in length, not including the stem — also took second in the longest vegetable category.

Yet when all the votes were tallied, those bread-and-butter zucchini somehow emerged as the best entry of all the foods grown right here in the District of Columbia.

In accepting the prize, I had to admit that our zucchini usually grow just fine with little interference from me. All I have to do is leave on vacation for a couple of weeks. When I return, the zucchini are as big as your leg. The monster I entered this year — hardly the biggest we’ve seen by a long shot — was found hiding in a tomato cage.

It was such a grand beginning for our new state fair, I couldn’t help wondering what it might be like next year.

“I don’t even want to think about it,” said Showalter, as she tried to focus on the pie judging. “I have to go home and crash first.”

Prize-winning bread-and-butter zucchini

If using really large, heirloom Italian zucchini for this like we do, slice the zucchini down the middle. Remove the center part with the seeds and cut the meat into quarter-rounds about 3/8-inch thick. If you’re using traditional garden-variety zucchini, simply cut the zucchini into 1/4-inch rounds.

4 pounds zucchini, cleaned and cut as described above
3/4 pound onion, peeled and sliced into thin quarter-rounds
1/4 cup pickling salt (or non-iodized sea salt, or kosher salt)
2 cups cider vinegar
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons mustard seed
1 teaspoon ground turmeric 

Cover the vegetables with ice in a large bowl and let stand two hours. Drain the vegetables. Meanwhile, in a nonreactive pot, bring to a boil the salt, vinegar, sugar, mustard seed and turmeric. Add the vegetables, return to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer 5 minutes.

Ladle vegetables and liquid into 4 pint-size canning jars, leaving 1/2-inch head space. Secure two-piece lids according to manufacturer’s instructions and process 10 minutes in a boiling water bath to seal.