In my dream, a sweetgrass breeze blows in through the open door. In the background, birdsong weaves in and out of earshot, as though passing through water. My fingers brush the red gingham tablecloth laden with homemade pickles and miscellaneous jams, a perfectly yellow summer sun glinting through the glass. I hold up a hand to shield my eyes, and through the gaps in my fingers, I can just make out my mistake. It’s not the sun at all; it’s Linda Skeens’ prizewinning canned corn, beautiful and terrible as the dawn, and all fair entrants cower before its greatness.
The Virginia Kentucky District Fair may have crowned her champion of Baked Goods, but the internet has made her queen.
Held annually since 1913, the affectionately nicknamed VaKy Fair averages about 14,000 attendees from Wise County, Virginia and neighboring Letcher County, Kentucky. It offers rides, live music, bull riding, Motocross, a horse show, and competitions in art, agriculture, crafts and home economics. No word on whether she entered the bull riding contest, but Skeens cleaned up in the home economics division. She won every place in every category of Baked Goods, many of the ones in Canned Foods, and took best overall in most of those categories as well. A real Renaissance woman for the ages, she even placed in Embroidery and Wall Décor. The comments have christened this phenomenon a "Skeens Sweep."
The entire internet is ablaze with her fandom. There are thousands of comments, memes and calls for her and Sharon of “Thanks, Marie Callender” fame to collaborate. There’s a whole parody Facebook group using her name, people pleading for a cookbook or an interview to know more about how she rose to the top of her game, and more than one Linda Skeens posting that they have received dozens of messages and want to let everyone know they aren’t that Linda Skeens.
One Virginia-based Linda Skeens-but-not-that-Linda-Skeens I talked to said she’s gotten messages from Baking Queen admirers from as far away as Norway and Indonesia. “Every single person has been incredibly cool, funny, and fun,” she says, “(P)eople have gotten the joke, and I’m having a blast.”
The fair has been over for two weeks, but if anything, the lore is still building. “Linda Skeens ain’t here to make friends,” commented Maria Durbin on the fair’s original post, “just here to make HISTORY.”
But, in true Slim Shady fashion, the real Linda Skeens has yet to stand up.
I can’t really blame her; the hype must be daunting. The comments, my goodness, the comments! In the absence of verifiable details, rumor is collective entertainment. People wonder whether she was the only entrant, or they posit that perhaps everyone in Wise, Virginia is named Linda Skeens. One calls her the “John Wick of canning,” and there are innumerable Chuck Norris jokes. Insinuations that she may murder her closest competition (or be murdered by them) abound, as do mini fan-fiction dramas to rival "Game of Thrones." In them, Linda Skeens saved a family from a burning house, played catering Fairy Godmother at a wedding leaving behind only the scent of fresh apple pie, or rescued a kitten from a tree by baking a baguette ladder underneath. “Linda saved me hundreds on my car insurance,” said Caren Rose.
Desperate to talk with Skeens and hopefully find out the secret to her Best Overall Baked Good-winning Strawberry Fudge (!), I contacted the fair to see if we could get the skinny. Spokesperson Jennifer Sturgill told me that Skeens won 25 of the 29 categories she entered, and contrary to popular belief, she was often not the only entrant — she’s just that good. As a fellow Southerner who knows well that crafting and cooking competitions are the bread and butter (pickle) of the county fair, with stiff competition from a lot of talented entrants, I’m awestruck by that accomplishment. A lot of social media commenters are, too, and they’re clamoring for a cookbook. Is there one published every year the way some fairs do, I ask Sturgill hopefully? “I’ve certainly been asked about a cookbook, and right now, no there is not, but I’m not saying that couldn’t happen in the future.”
That’s welcome news at least, but would Skeens talk with us? “Unfortunately, Linda is declining interviews at this time,” was the reply.
As I said, I feel this is understandable; she doesn’t seem to be on social media, and this must be overwhelming for one person to deal with. Sturgill said the fair’s employees are struggling to process the publicity, and there are 15 of them. But honestly, I think I prefer the mystery. As things are, Linda Skeens could be anyone you pass on the street, slipping in to share her miracle brownies with the world, and slipping out again unnoticed, like a bakery Banksy. This way, the medium is the message: Delights still exist in these difficult and chaotic times. We can depend, at least, on the immortality of a properly risen load of bread, or a perfect cookie.
“Everyone needs a Linda in their life,” Katie Cortes commented on Facebook, and I believe that’s true. It explains why such a large swath of the internet is so captivated.
I have a feeling next year’s VaKy District Fair may have a broader reach than in years past. Sturgill tells me that they’ve already got the dates lined up, so mark your calendars for June 13 to 17, 2023. Legend has it that if you get there early, when the birdsong is still rising and falling with the dawn, you just might get a glimpse of someone tabling a plate of strawberry fudge out of the corner of your eye, or catch the scent of a freshly baked apple pie.