The Secrets Behind Linda Skeens' Blue Ribbon Recipes

It wasn't so long ago that no one had heard of Linda Skeens, a grandmother from Russell County, Virginia. But that all changed in 2022 when Skeens went viral on social media after the Virginia Kentucky District Fair posted its winners. Skeens swept the competition, winning nearly every baking and canning category available, including several for which she won first, second, and third prizes. Overnight, Linda Skeens was catapulted to stardom, appearing on TV on the Kelly Clarkson Show and the Today Show among others.

Now, Skeens has come out with a cookbook, "Linda Skeens Blue Ribbon Kitchen: Recipes and Tips from America's Favorite County Fair Champion," to pass on her impressive cooking knowledge. In an interview with Mashed, she shares that writing a cookbook has always been her dream but she never had the chance. One to seize an opportunity when it comes knocking, Skeens put together a book with her winning recipes and many others and is sharing her tips and tricks with the world.

In it to win it

It is no surprise that Skeens has risen in the ranks of the county fair circuit, but some might be surprised to learn that cooking did not come naturally to her and she was not born a master. "It was a little bit hard because my mom was a really great cook, but she done all the cooking and I wasn't really interested in cooking that much at that time," says Skeens. After getting married, Skeens got serious about learning to cook and received help from her mother and mother-in-law and practiced a lot on her own.

Skeens is driven to win, so when she took to cooking, it was a natural leap to the county fair circuit. Her first serious competition was in 1984. "I got hooked on it and I've been in on them ever since," she remembers. It should be noted that Skeens doesn't just win for her food, but also for her crafts. "I'm very competitive," she comments, and when she enters a competition, she is there to win.

Sudden notoriety

Skeens had been entering and winning competitions for decades before her viral sweep of the Virginia Kentucky District Fair, never getting press beyond local newspapers. Suddenly, the internet was enthralled with her and wanted to know more — they just had to find her first. Other Linda Skeens began to get messages on social media, as people searched for the elusive winner. When the world finally tracked her down, Skeens' life changed overnight.

"It was very exciting, but it was scary, too [...] they told me there was over 10,000 people hooking up to talk to me, I didn't know what to think about it. I was overwhelmed really, just to be honest, at first, because I wasn't expecting that," she describes. With sudden fame came new opportunities for Skeens. She has gotten to travel and has since taken her first airplane trip. Perhaps the most important was finally getting the chance to make a cookbook. After being approached by her publisher, Skeens was ecstatic: "I was really interested. Yes, I wanted to do one real bad."

Simple is the key

"Blue Ribbon Kitchen" is clearly a personal book that Skeens took great care in creating. It includes her recipes and tips, as well as poems and reminiscences woven throughout. Nevertheless, the book remains approachable, and Skeens shares homestyle Appalachian recipes that anyone can make. 

She notes that early on she tried to make dishes from TV but quickly ran into trouble. "Well, they call for stuff I had no idea what it was. And I'd go to the Piggly Wiggly, and they'd say, "We don't carry that stuff." Instead, Skeens uses basic equipment and ingredients that can be found at any grocery store. "It's just easier to do it that way when you start," she comments and adds, "We just like this kind of stuff." 

"Blue Ribbon Kitchen" shows that anyone can learn to cook without being daunted by extra equipment or ingredients — the food will not suffer. On the contrary, as Skeens has shown, this kind of cooking easily wins over whoever tries it. 

Canned to perfection

Skeens is a wizard when it comes to canning. It would be easy to let her wins start blurring together, but two of them stand out in her mind. One is a can of yellow tomatoes that won best in show. The other was a raspberry jam that had already disappeared by the time Skeens showed up to collect her prize. "I hope they enjoyed it," she remarks.

"Blue Ribbon Kitchen" includes many prize-winning recipes by Skeens, but she encourages people to branch out and try new things. Those prize-winning yellow tomatoes were the first year Skeens had tried canning the variety. You can draw inspiration from anywhere or just try something that sounds good. As Skeens says in her book, "Try new recipes and combinations — it keeps life interesting." Skeens gets much of her produce from a farm in Duncan, Virginia, as well as at a produce stand, but she sees nothing wrong with getting produce from the local grocery store.

While she encourages experimentation, Skeens adheres to food safety concerns. For example, she recommends taking precautions when doing home canning. Improper heating can cause glass jars to shatter. She recommends heating the jar before it goes into the canner to prevent this. Step-by-step instructions on how to can food using a hot water bath method are found in "Blue Ribbon Kitchen."

Fudge the way mother used to make

Fudge has been in Linda Skeens' family for generations. Her mother was such an accomplished fudge maker that people used to buy it from her. Skeens, of course, keeps up the family tradition of fudge making and it is a big hit. In her book, you will find multiple recipes for blue ribbon fudges. While making candy may sound intimidating, Skeens is there to assist you, this time with some help from her mom.

Skeens' mother made her fudge the old-fashioned way, with a coal stove and no thermometer. While common practice today is to rely on a thermometer to inform you when the candy has reached the "softball stage," Skeens offers a trick for those without the piece of equipment: "The way she would test it to see if it was a softball stage, she would drop a drop of it down in a little bowl of cold water, and you would roll it around with your fingers. And if it made a soft ball [and] held together, then the candy was done. If not, you try again." This is an old-school method that can still be used today, especially in conjunction with a modern stove.

Flaky biscuits

No one can deny Linda Skeens' baking ability. There was not a baking category in the 2022 Virginia Kentucky District Fair that she didn't win. Her biscuits, of course, are showstoppers. The recipe for Skeens buttermilk biscuits is included in "Blue Ribbon Kitchen," but she shares some additional tips and techniques with us to help achieve the perfect flaky biscuit.

While most people focus on what kind of fat goes into the biscuit, Skeens focuses on the liquid. You can use butter or Crisco shortening but, "Make sure you have good buttermilk. I like whole buttermilk in mine," she says. Additionally, biscuits require you to get your hands dirty, as Skeens instructs to "mix it up with your fingers." The whole process is an exercise in restraint, and she says to make sure the pieces of fat are not too small and to avoid over-rolling the dough. Less is more when it comes to perfect biscuits. "Just take [the dough] and mix it up, roll them out, and cut them out, and that's it."

Coleslaw and fried catfish

Since Skeens first started her cooking journey when she got married to her husband Frank, it was only right to include his favorite meal in her book: deep-fried catfish and coleslaw. Once again, we see Skeens keeping it simple. She does not add superfluous spices and seasoning and instead just sticks to cabbage, carrots, sugar, mayonnaise, vinegar, salt, and pepper. This basic combination is a big winner.

While the book recommends pairing her coleslaw with BBQ chicken sandwiches, we suggest serving it with Frank's favorite fried catfish. A properly fried piece of fish is a thing of beauty. Skeens says it is vital to make sure the oil is fully hot before you start, then she instructs, "Fry it on both sides 'til it's brown, and then turn [the heat] down, fry it a few more minutes." This is how to obtain the perfect results for fried fish.

Going forward

Now that her book is out, Linda Skeens has no plans to slow down anytime soon. She is already working on corn relish, jams, and bread and butter pickles for upcoming fairs. She encourages others to do the same and hopes her book will inspire a new generation of home cooks to take up practices such as canning. "I'm 75, a lot of my age ladies know how to can and do that, but young people haven't got into that yet. And I'm hoping that a lot of people will take it up because I think if they don't, when we're gone, it won't be around anymore, just to be honest with you."

For those looking to enter a fair competition for the first time, Skeens has one final piece of advice: Read the rules and regulations. "Most county fairs have a website, and they will give you a little book or a list of things that you can [do]; there are certain things you can enter and can't enter." Regulations include anything from specifying what kind of jars can be used for canning to what ingredients can be used in the food. No one wants to get kicked out on a technicality. 

Skeens is happy to have left her mark in the form of "Blue Ribbon Kitchen," documenting the talent, recipes, and legacy of a county fair champion and providing inspiration to others going forward.