in the kitchen with…
New ‘fair lady’ brings a ton of experience to her job.
Story by Carol McGarvey
Photography by Ben Lochard
Featured in July/August 2021
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Pat Berry of Urbandale is jumping into the food superintendent’s job at the Iowa State Fair with 20 years of entering the contests and another 25 years as a judge. “Still, though, I’m nervous coming off of a canceled fair for 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It will be different, that’s for sure,” she admits.
But not to worry. Pat is tough and will guide her 60-person staff of workers and volunteers through changes based on Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines. Here are some of the proposed changes to the food competitions in the Elwell Family Food Center:
- The fair opens at 8 a.m., not at 7 a.m. as in past years.
- Buildings will close at 8 p.m. to give workers a chance to clean surfaces.
- The writers for judges will be farther apart.
- The number of chairs for each of the judging areas will be decreased.
- Better usage of space behind the curtains.
- Some contests won’t take place this year because the sponsors have decided to take a pause: grandparent-grandchild contests, Dutch oven contests, and various others for which companies have decided not to participate for safety reasons.
- Assessment of protocols will continue to be discussed until the fair starts.
Pat herself has a story to tell, but it hasn’t diminished her willingness to forge ahead. She was born in Alabama. Her mother passed away when Pat was only 3. Her father decided that he could not easily handle three children. She and her brother were adopted by a relative family in Sewal in southern Iowa, and a sister went to another relative family. After high school in Seymour, Pat came to Des Moines for nurses’ training.
In 1982 she was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. She moves around deftly with a walker, canes, or a scooter cart for various tasks. A hip replacement in 2018 still requires some fine-tuning. She had a slowdown in that area, when Paul, her husband, passed away earlier this year after a lingering illness, a result of exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam.
Taking on this fair position actually had therapeutic value in keeping her mind busy. Pat will continue living at the fairgrounds in her camper during the fair as she has done for 35 years. “It is fun camping at the fair and so much easier than going back and forth each day,” she says.
She credits her predecessor, Karen McKilligan of Ames, with writing everything down in chronological order as to when it should be done. “That has been totally invaluable,” Pat says.
With her passion for gardening, Pat brings her own experiences to the table from having huge 60-foot gardens with 64—yes, 64—tomato plants, along with black and red raspberries, cucumbers, green beans, and other produce. Plus, she was a 4-H leader for her son, Rob. Now, since she is retired from the nursing profession, she babysits for his daughter, Norah, 3½, several days each week. Two stepchildren from her husband complete her family.
She values the workers and volunteers at the fair. “The whole thing runs so beautifully because they all love the fair,” she points out. “At the last fair two years ago, we named a team leader for each judging room, and it worked so well that we will continue with that. Judges doing more than one category will remain assigned to that room. That, too, works well.”
The whole judging procedure also works because the exhibitors come, the workers get the foods to the right spots at the right times, the judges judge, and the sponsors provide the incentives.
“It truly takes a village—no, an army—to get through the judging procedures,” Pat says. “We are the Number 1 state fair food competition operation in the country. That’s because we have live judging throughout the fair, and judges give contestants handwritten notes on their entries.”
She is right. It’s pretty amazing. •