By AMBER POMPA
Peggy Woodard believes the quickest way to a person’s heart is through their stomach and her family would most certainly agree.
Woodard has always loved being in the kitchen, ever since she first began learning how to cook at the age of 8.
“I came from a large family and started cooking for them when I was 9,” said Woodard. “I learned mainly from watching and let me tell you, the first pan of gravy I ever made, you could slice it with a knife, but my Daddy ate it like it was the best thing in the world. I’ve learned a few tricks since then. It’s all about practice.”
While cooking began as a necessity, it soon became one of Woodard’s greatest loves.
“The better I got at it the more I enjoyed it,” she said. “When I learned to make a pie crust, that soon became my job. Bless my Momma’s heart, she couldn’t make a pie crust that didn’t taste like shoe leather. In fact, my crusts have gotten quite a few compliments when I enter my pies for contest.”
Woodard has been competing in cooking competitions since June 2003, with the Hunt County Fair being her first official cooking competition.
That year she entered bread, pies, cakes, cookies and even entered the canning competition.
“It’s either go big or go home,” she laughed. “They don’t limit the number of entries at the county level like they do at the state so I thought, well, let’s just see.”
That first year she did extremely well in canning competition.
“I can everything I can get my hands on,” said Woodard. “I can beets, picante, tomato pickles, tomatoes, corn relish, pickled okra, jalapeños, beans, peas and all kinds of jams and jellies with my most unusual ones being carrot cake jam and pomegranate jelly. I also make sweet potato butter and apple butter.
Most of what Woodard cans is fresh from the garden, either what she can grow herself or can barter from other people.
“I grew up with the barter system and it still seems to work out pretty well,” she said. “Especially if I bribe the growers with some of my goodies.”
After sampling some of her baked goods during that first competition, several of her friends suggested she enter the baking competition at the State Fair of Texas in October of that same year.
“I thought there was no way I could compete with the caliber of people at that level,” said Woodard. “The first competition I entered over there was candy and I brought home ribbons in every category I entered.”
Woodard was shocked when they called her name. That year, her Divinity candy grabbed the most attention, especially since that was the category with the fewest entries.
“I was told it had the least number of entries because it’s extremely hard to make,” she said. “I was also told you can’t make it on a rainy day, but that’s a joke. I know the little secret. I can make it if it’s pouring down rain. That’s not true of merengue, though.”
That year, in addition to divinity, she entered peanut butter bonbons, peanut patties and toffee and received first place ribbons for all her candies.
“I also did cakes, pies, casseroles and Tex-Mex that first year,” said Woodard. “That first year, I didn’t know to put the entries in pretty dishes, but I was ready that next year, believe me.”
Woodard won the Burleson’s Honey sponsored contest two years in a row and though she hasn’t claimed the main prize in the other sponsored cooking competitions, she’s working on changing that.
She has placed in the international chili contest the first two years she entered, first with her venison chili and then her buffalo meat chili, which took first place.
“As soon as the fair is over, I’m already working on entries for next year,” said Woodard. “The competition is pretty serious at the state level. In fact, some of those women can get downright ugly to out-of-towners. My friend from Bonham and I compete every year and they always look at us like we’re country bumpkins, but I say the proof is in the ribbons and I have so many if I tried to hang them all, they’d take up every bit of my wall space.”
Woodard has approximately 250 wins from the Hunt County and State Fairs. While winning is nice, it’s the cooking that Woodard truly loves.
“My boyfriend, Jerry Leach, is my resident guinea pig,” said Woodard. “If he didn’t practice portion control I swear he’d be as big as a house with all the food I make around here.”
Woodard is currently knee- deep in chocolate, peanut butter and nutmeg, what with her baking all manner of goodies to be given away as Christmas gifts.
“I think homemade gifts are the best gifts you can give,” she said. “I think my family and friends would definitely agree. I’m truly happiest when I’m in the kitchen and I like to think that happiness shows in the taste of my treats.”