At the Fair, Sculpture Worth Salivating Over

Ellen Zell, right, was named grand champion of the cheese-carving competition at the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair. Her friend Mary Gallagher, left, was last year's winner.
Ellen Zell, right, was named grand champion of the cheese-carving competition at the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair. Her friend Mary Gallagher, left, was last year's winner. (Photos By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)

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By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The temperature was not optimal yesterday for the seventh annual Invitational Amateur Cheese Carving Contest at the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair. It was just a tad too hot. The 2 1/2 -pound blocks of cheese were sweaty; the fine details of the designs -- the kind that really bring cheese carvings to life -- were melting.

Nevertheless, the dozen contestants at the event, sponsored by Pepco and held across from the fair's popular Big Cheese Bar (home of the $2.25 grilled cheese sandwich), found ways to cope. After unwrapping their blocks of cheddar, some attempted to shade the cheese with their bodies. Others fanned the cheese blocks or tried to shield them by covering the chunks with paper towels.

Carvers ranged from teenagers to grandmothers. The more experienced competitors brought sketches and their own tools (toothpicks for detail work, cookie cutters and paring knives), while others made do with the plastic knives provided by the organizers.

They also came with their own strategies.

John Michael St. Angelo, 17, of Germantown, chosen "king" of this year's fair, practiced his design on smaller blocks of cheese before yesterday's event. "If you work on smaller chunks, it makes it easier to do the big blocks because you don't have to be as detailed," he said.

Mary Gallagher, a 55-year-old lactation consultant, was psyched to try to repeat her 2006 win. Her sculpture of an American flag had won the grand prize even though she had had no previous carving experience, cheese or otherwise.

Over the past few weeks, the mother of three from Derwood had pondered several possibilities for her cheese block. Yesterday, she was excited and chatty. She noted that aged cheddar can be difficult to work with because it crumbles more easily than other block cheeses. She was also pleased that contestants would be able to take home all cheese scraps. Just a few minutes before the contest was to begin, she excused herself so she could get ready for the event.

The participants, seated at long tables, were to be given 40 minutes to complete their task.

At the appointed time, Debbie Malone, co-chairwoman of the event, stepped forward.

"Okay, carvers, you can go ahead and unwrap your cheese," Malone said.

The 12 set to work. Some gritted their teeth and inhaled as they tried to cut through the roughly brick-size blocks. Janet Warman of Rockville sketched on her block with a pencil before she began to cut.

For the most part, the spectators were well behaved, though one of the judges reported that an older man had the nerve to reach over and grab a small chunk off a carver's cheese block -- a clear violation of the unspoken rules of cheese-carving conduct.

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