Arizona woman has baked her way to state fair for 45 years

PHOENIX (AP) — While many visitors will be going to the Arizona State Fair for the fried food, Mary Jane McHenry will be bringing food such as cookies, muffins and focaccia made with rosemary from her garden.

The longtime Phoenix resident is entering the fair's culinary competition in multiple categories for the 45th consecutive year. On Tuesday, McHenry will load up her car with at least eight entries and take them to the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum for judging. Competing at the fair, which runs through Oct. 27, has become a special tradition for the baking enthusiast.

"It's satisfying, it's calming, it's rewarding," she told The Arizona Republic. "It's kind of a feeling of . quiet satisfaction."

McHenry generally submits more recipes than she plans to actually make. She will wait until a few days before submission deadline for inspiration to strike.

"It makes it more fun. I don't want to get bored doing what I do," she said.

A retired teacher, McHenry grew up with a family that loved to bake. At 6 years old, she earned first place at a fair in Michigan with her mother's cookie recipe. Her interest in competing evaporated not long after, but her passion for baking remained.

Yet, somehow, in 1974, McHenry decided to try her culinary skills at the Arizona State Fair. She entered an aloe vera jelly. She doesn't remember if it won, but she does recall wanting to return.

Since then, McHenry has entered baked goods, canned goods and even salsas and prickly pear jelly. But when it comes to baking, she is not about cake decorating — just flavor and texture. Her previous winning pastries include walnut bread, Portuguese sweet bread and Joe Frogger cookies.

"It just really makes her happy," said McHenry's daughter, Tracy McBride. "There's not enough joy in the world anyway."

What doesn't make her happy is seeing the number of entries in the culinary and homemaking competitions dwindle over the years. Brianda Martinez, an Arizona State Fair representative, agreed that state fairs in general are seeing a drop in people interested in things such as baking and canning.

"Those talents and skills aren't being passed down to younger generations," Martinez said in an email.

The fair is hoping to get younger people interested with categories like cupcake decorating.