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Homemade and hand-made at Pasco County Fair

DADE CITY - Melanie Foltz remembers what it felt like to win a purple gingham Grand Champion ribbon the first time she entered one of her quilts for judging at the Pasco County Fair. "I was almost overwhelmed," she said. "I was so proud. Even if you don't win, it's nice to see your work hanging. I would have been happy with a blue ribbon, or even a red." But nothing compared to the wave of emotion that swept over her when Back Porch Exhibits Director Carol Reeves presented her with the inaugural Vera Cox Excellence in Quilting" ribbon for her 2013 entry, which also took the grand prize in the appliqué category. Foltz worked on the hand-sewn quilt for two years, adding personal touches: her initials, her signature lady bug and a cut out of Ginger, her stub-tailed cat. Cox, who died in 2012, had her own share of grand champion ribbons from county fairs past. "She was everything a quilter should be," Reeves said. "You quilt the way Vera did."
The Pasco County Fair is many things. It's the midway rides, the elephant ears, livestock competitions, racing pigs and baby pageants. For the people who compete in the Back Porch Exhibits, it's a chance to show off their talents in quilting, knitting, woodworking, flower arranging, canning and baking. The Pasco County Fair opens Monday at the fairgrounds in Dade City. For Reeves, the Back Porch competitions are a chance to share family traditions passed down for five generations. "When my cousins were out tending to the animals, I stayed with my grandmothers," she said. "One quilted; the other was into canning." Reeves, a grand champion quilter, started exhibiting at the fair when she was just a girl. "The first time I won, I was on cloud nine for a week," she said. Now her daughter and granddaughter compete in cookie baking, cake making and quilting. "Everybody wants the big purple and white ribbon," Reeves said. Win too many purple ribbons, and word gets around. Just ask Gerry Bright of Zephyrhills. "We call her the 'Cookie Queen,'" Reeves said. Bright has won Grand Champion or Reserve Grand Champion for her cookies seven years in a row. Everywhere she goes, people ask her for cookies. That's OK. She bakes a fresh batch almost every morning — so much that she buys her brown sugar and nuts in bulk at Sam's Club. In 2007, Bright couldn't bake a batch for the fair because she was recovering from eye surgery. But she had a dozen molasses cookies in the freezer she had made for her granddaughter the week before. At Reeves' insistence, she took them out of the freezer and entered them in the competition. "And would you believe they won?" she said, almost embarrassed at her success. That is how legends are born. Each of Bright's sons and grandchildren has a favorite — oatmeal raison, or peanut butter, or her famous sugar cookies (with a hint of pancake syrup.) But Bright must invent new recipes each year for the fair and fine-tune them in the months leading up to the competition. This year's entries are caramel and dried cranberry with white chocolate-chip. She doesn't use cookbooks or magazines. "The ones I try out of magazines are always a flop," she said. She doesn't buy fancy ingredients or expensive chocolate. She uses shortening instead of butter. And she always insists on real vanilla — "Never the fake stuff." Baking relieved stress when David, her husband of 50 years, underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments at Moffitt Cancer Center. She used to bring cookies to the other cancer patients. David survived — minus one lung — and he's still Gerry's biggest fan. "But I don't get to eat her cookies anymore," he laments. "I have diabetes."

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