Andrew Dys

Final judgment

Linda McCorkle judges canning Tuesday at the York County Fair.
Linda McCorkle judges canning Tuesday at the York County Fair.

The end came on little cat-head biscuit feet. Death was accompanied by the only lemon orange zucchini marmalade entered at the York County Fair this year, or ever, in 80 years of marmalades entered at the fair.

Biscuits won blue ribbons and reds and even whites, and that lemon orange zucchini marmalade won a blue ribbon for first place in a category known forever as "Other."

This 80th incarnation of prizes for best pickled peppers and best pound cake and best quilt died after the judging finished Tuesday because the fair is no more after this year. The agricultural roots of York County, the reason all those crops and vegetables and fruits and other wonderful crafts got judged for so long, has withered.

But a part of anybody who ever watched an old lady pickle peppers, or sew, or bake a pound cake with a pound of butter and a pound of sugar and a pound of flour and a pound of eggs -- although nobody was ever sure how many eggs were in a pound -- died some on Tuesday. Over and over, as the judges for categories tasted and sniffed and peered and held magic in their hands, the refrain came out. It came from a lovely lady named Marie Williams tasting baked goods and Jake Benfield judging honey, and the sole judge of all that was canned in Mason or Bell jars for the past 34 years, Linda McCorkle.

It's a shame to see it go, each said, quietly. So softly, like a funeral.

The fair property is sold, and nobody's granny or granddaughter will again be known as the best anything in York County.

When a 59-year-old lady named Margaret Godwin brought in two boxes of stuff she grew or canned or made, she did it for the last time ever. She had a plate of show onions she was as proud of as any newborn father is when showing off pictures at barside.

I asked her how long she had canned butter beans, and she looked at me like I was stupid -- which I am when it comes to canning butter beans -- and she said, "Ever since I was old enough to sit on the porch and shell beans."

And there it is, the death of who cans the best butter beans.

Yet, through the judging, McCorkle cackled over pickles, joked over jams, cooed over corn cob jelly. She tapped lids with her forefinger, checking for seal, ogled clarity and color with shining eyes. If she found "floaters," vegetables that were supposed to sit in the liquid, that was the Grim Reaper for that entry.

When she looked at one entry after testing the seal and said, "This is just an old jar of pickles," the last chance for that pickle maker to be best just up and keeled over and died.

She spoke of how canning is passed on from generations, how this contest was passed on from generations and after this how nobody will be the York County queen or king of watermelon rind pickles ever again.

Over at the baked goods, four judges kept "the sugar" or "sugar diabetes" at bay by trying just a little bit of everything. Cakes, pies, cupcakes, breads: Somebody baked it, they judged it. Somebody did bake, and judge, for 80 years.

A joyous little girl, 11 years old, with hope in her eyes named Abby Smith brought in peanut butter cookies and biscuits. She won a red ribbon for second place in biscuits and a white for third in cookies.

I hope she keeps those ribbons forever because those ribbons are the last ones she, or anybody, will ever get from the York County Fair. The winners will be on display all week. But after this weekend, there won't be any fair or ribbons any more. No 11-year-old kids in pigtails will win $6 for first place, or 4 bucks for second, or 2 dollars for third.

Maybe somebody will try to keep parts of the fair alive, such as the livestock growers have with their sheep and cows and pigs and goats at another location every autumn. But it will not be who is best at the York County Fair.

"Hate it's the last one," came the words from underneath the ballcap of an old honey judge, Ken Hinson. Hinson had checked the last bottle for density and to make sure no crystals were in that honey. That it was free of lint or anything else and had the right color and flavor. He called flavor "boutique."

A wiseguy called out, "That's B-O-T-E-E-K for you uninformed and those who can't spell too good."

That's what honey people call it at the York County Fair, boutique spelled any way you want to spell it. And if you had the right boutique you could win a blue ribbon and be, yes, the best.

But not anymore.