This story, originally published by the Bristol Herald Courier, was produced by the Virginia Folklife Program and is the latest in a series highlighting individuals working at the intersection of culture and community.
Linda Skeens of Russell County became famous last summer when a results photo of her 25 blue-ribbon winnings at the Virginia-Kentucky District Fair went viral online.
A year later, Skeens is set to return to the VA-KY Fair, which runs June 13-17, with a newly released cookbook: “Blue Ribbon Kitchen: Recipes and Tips from America’s Favorite County Fair Champion.”
Skeens landslide winnings in the Home Economics Exhibits section prompted the internet to seek out this 74-year-old lifelong homemaker.
“Everybody trying to find me was wondering if I was even real,” Skeens said. “Nobody could find me, because I don’t do computers, cell phones, social media—nothing. This young girl in Texas tracked me down through my granddaughter. We did our first radio interview in my kitchen.”
A whirlwind of media attention included appearances in 2022 and 2023 on the “Today” show, “The Kelly Clarkson Show” and National Public Radio, meeting Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, her first plane rides and a visit to Europe.
Skeens has generously shared many recipes with the media, perhaps most often her peanut butter fudge.
Skeens, who was born in Dante (population roughly 400), taught herself to cook as a young married woman out of necessity. She jokes if she didn’t figure it out, she and her husband would have starved. She inherited a few family recipes, like her mother’s chow chow and her mother-in-law’s cabbage rolls. Mostly she riffs on simple comfort foods.
“Most people who know me know I like to win.”Linda Skeens
“It’s good, but it’s not complicated,” Skeens said. “Most of my recipes are like my Mexican cornbread: Everybody loves it, I always get a ribbon with it, it’s simple—just mix it up in a pan and bake it.”
In addition to recipes for easy and delicious standards like zucchini bread, buttermilk biscuits and sweets like Hornet’s Nest Cake, “Blue Ribbon Kitchen” is a kind of scrapbook of her life as a wife, mother, cook, crafter and poet. Included in its pages are family photos, a couple of her poems, and photos of quilts and crafts she has made over the years.
Skeens has entered her cooking, canning and crafts in regional fairs for over three decades. She began with the Russell County Fair, then the Virginia Kentucky District Fair in Wise, and she was recently invited to enter the Washington County Fair.
She is competitive by nature and says she has won almost 1,500 ribbons in her lifetime. “Most people who know me know I like to win,” she said.
For Skeens, entering annual fairs has kept her growing, inventing new recipes, expanding her repertoire and dreaming up new things to create.
“I work on crafts in the winter, and then in the summer and spring, I make and can jam,” she said. “Then two days before the fair I like to cook like crazy, to get it all ready.”
Her crafts include hand-embroidered pillowcases and painted gourds. This year she is particularly proud to enter her “state bird quilt,” wherein all fifty states are represented by their hand-embroidered state bird and flower.
Participating in fairs for three decades has given Skeens friendships that survive her competitive nature and tendency to win.
“But I’ve never met a judge,” Skeens shared. “I may have met them and didn’t know it, but you’re not allowed. I have no idea who they are.”
Skeens also enjoys entering other types of community competitions, like a jam contest hosted by the Food City in Lebanon. Two young boys judged the 50 entered jams by both appearance and how they tasted on a biscuit. Skeens won the $100 first prize for her peach raspberry jam—one of her trademark experiments, where she takes something familiar and adds a different twist.
“Those boys told me, ‘We’ve been eating homemade jam all our life and never tasted anything like that raspberry zing!’,” she recalled.
Cook-offs, regional fairs, bake sales and other community food events support home cooks and crafters by giving them a venue to flex their skills, innovate, come together, and celebrate accomplishment. They can also inspire people to learn a new skill, or take their work to the next level. Skeens says last year’s Russell County Fair saw some 200 canning entries, double their typical amount—a possible ripple effect from her media coverage.
As fair season kicks off, and with her cookbook now released, Skeens hopes others will be encouraged to experiment in their kitchens.
“I think it would be nice if a lot more people started trying to can, if they don’t already. Or cook more. Or even just try crafts,” she said. “It is so much fun to do stuff like that.”