House Specialties: Blue-ribbon bars have presidential potential

Esther Spaeth stands in her kitchen, where her cupboards are lined with fair ribbons. The Jenera woman has been entering — and winning — county fairs since her high school years. Her Carter Bars date back to 1977 when President Jimmy Carter’s administration gave free government commodities like cheese and peanut butter to schools. The bars were originally created by a cook at the school and have become repeat fair winners for Spaeth and other cooks in her family. (Photo by Randy Roberts)


Staff Writer

JENERA — Esther Spaeth is a champion. The proof is in her kitchen cupboards, lined with the ribbons she has won through the years at the Hancock County Fair.

Although the Jenera woman has no idea how many there are in total, the red, white and blue awards now fill all of the upper cabinets and she has moved on to the bottom ones.

“It’s a place to keep them,” she explained. “It’s better than just throwing them in a box.”

Spaeth has also been diligent abou

t recording the specific category and year won on the back of each ribbon. A check of one cupboard door shows honors for her honey cake, tomato soup, brownies, peanut butter cookies and canned fruit.

“It’s fun to try new recipes,” she said. “But I probably make cookies the most often because some of the grandchildren come here every day after school. So John (her husband) says I probably bake cookies every other day.”

Spaeth grew up going to the county fair.

“My folks and my brother and sister all entered things in the fair,” she said.

She attended Cory-Rawson School and took classes in home economics.

“We always entered things in the fair, and that’s what got me started,” she said.

Her very first ribbon dates back to 1958.

“My rosettes and my first ribbons are very grungy looking because at that time, they kept the whole thing (baked good),” she said. “So OK, you have a whole chocolate cake and they put the ribbon right on the chocolate cake. So a lot of this has food on it that I tried to wipe off.”

Her involvement with the fair in high school eventually led to competing in open class contests. And Spaeth is still a regular competitor.

“It’s just fun. Everybody seems to have a good time. You see people that you only see maybe once a year. I look forward to that. We sit and talk and have a good time,” she said. “And of course, the fair food is always good.”

Spaeth said all five of the couple’s children competed at the fair, and that interest now continues with her grandchildren who range in age from 9 to 27. The family takes a variety of entries, she noted, including rabbits, woodworking and crafts.

And then of course, there are the baking contests.

“We had a funny thing happen when the fair first offered a baking contest for men,” Spaeth recalled.

Her husband, son and two sons-in-law entered.

“So when we’d get together, not only the gals would talk about what they were going to enter, but the men were talking about it, too. ‘Did that turn out OK? What did you use?’ It was really funny,” she said.

The retired kindergarten teacher tests every recipe she plans on entering.

“And we kind of have an unwritten rule in our family that if we have won first, we enter it again and it keeps going,” Spaeth said.

That’s how she became a repeat winner for the “cakes made with honey” class.

Carter Bars have also won ribbons. The no-bake bars are well known to Cory-Rawson students and date back to 1977 when Jimmy Carter was president and the public schools received free government commodities like cheese, peanut butter and peanut granules.

Spaeth talked to several people to track down the history of these bars, including Brad Cox, who was superintendent at the time, and her husband, John, who was principal of the middle school and brought the recipe home.

She also talked to Sharlene Marshall, a teacher, and Nancy Thomas, the daughter of the late Thelma Bowersox, a cook at the school. Bowersox is credited with coming up with the recipe.

“Not only were the schools given the commodities in bulk, the cooks were also able to attend ‘cooking schools’ where they learned how to use the ingredients,” said Spaeth.

The collective belief is that Bowersox made the first Carter Bars in large 18-by-24-inch pans. The original recipe, with ingredients measured in quarts and pounds, has been cut down for household use. The adapted recipe is made in a 13-by-9-inch pan.

“There’s some oatmeal in there. And there were substitutions of potato flakes that you could use, but I’ve made them with potato flakes and you can taste those in there,” she said.

Margarine is also called for. Spaeth said a neighbor who had a dairy farm tried making the bars with real butter once, but “they got too soft. You almost had to eat them with a spoon. So margarine it is.”

They also think the original Carter Bars were plain — sans the chocolate frosting.

“But they have become a tradition. I mean, people just loved them,” said Spaeth.

And since Jimmy Carter was a peanut farmer from Georgia, the treats became known as Carter Bars.

They’ve been entered several times in the bar cookie category at the Hancock County Fair and are included in the 75th anniversary cookbook as a recipe submitted by Spaeth’s grandson, Jamey Miles.

“This sounds funny, but I’ve made them, all five of our kids have made them, and now our grandchildren are making them,” she said.

However, Jamey, who will be a senior at Cory-Rawson this year, makes them better than anyone else.

“We all use the same recipe, and we all use practically the same type of ingredients,” Spaeth said. “But there’s something about it. I don’t know how he does it. They’re more creamy.”

His mother, Kathy Miles, who is Spaeth’s daughter, said she can’t figure out how he does it.

“But when he started making them, we all said there’s something different about these,” said Spaeth. “It’s the same recipe, the same ingredients, the same house. He just has the touch.”

Jamey took the bars to the fair in 2013 and brought home a red ribbon for second place. When Spaeth took them in 2014, she won first place.

And they’re still a family favorite.

“The grandchildren will come and say, ‘Well, do you need to make something today?’ And I’ll say yes. ‘OK, let’s make Carter Bars,'” she laughed.

The recipe only takes about 30 minutes to put together and requires no refrigeration.

“Carter Bars are our celebration and our comfort food,” said Spaeth. “Whenever we have a celebration, we have to have Carter Bars. And when someone has a sadness, then I make them to take to them and they can be comforted.”

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Carter Bars

½ cup margarine
2 cups peanut butter
½ cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
½ cup uncooked
2 cups powdered sugar

Original Chocolate Frosting

¾ cup semi-sweet
chocolate chips
4 tablespoons

Later Version Chocolate Frosting

¼ cup margarine,
1/3 cup cocoa
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 cups powdered sugar
Hot water as needed

For the bars: Melt the margarine and stir in the peanut butter. Add the brown sugar, vanilla and oatmeal. Stir in the powdered sugar.
Pat into an 8-inch-by-8-inch pan (a 9-by-13-inch pan makes a thinner bar, or the recipe may be halved and put in a 9-by-9 pan).
Top with chocolate frosting.


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