Marjorie Johnson keeps breaking records — she thinks, anyway.
Is she the oldest person to score a blue ribbon in a Minnesota State Fair baking competition? "Maybe," said Johnson, a local legend who for decades has trounced the competition for her breads, sweet rolls and cakes, scoring thousands of ribbons since she started competing in the 1970s.
"A 103-year-old winning a blue ribbon," she mused. "Boy, that's remarkable."
On Aug. 9, Johnson turned 104. And maybe, she'll break another record. She's entering at least five more baking contests for this year's fair. After she published a cookbook in 2007, she was no longer eligible to enter the Creative Activities contests she dominated. But she has continued competing in the Honey division, and has never missed a year — except when the fair was closed in 2020 for the pandemic.
New to her this year: a recipe for citrus cake that she's currently developing in her Robbinsdale kitchen — and mulling over constantly, even when she's not baking.
"I keep trying, because I really, really want to win a ribbon," she said. "I think about it when I'm sitting here, and before I go to sleep, my brain starts working really good and comes out with ideas."
But that's not all she thinks about.
"Everybody who wants to live and feel good, and not die in their 60s and 70s and 80s, they have to think positive," she said. "What I do, is I wake up in the morning and say to myself, 'Today is going to be a wonderful day.' And at the end of the day, it will be a wonderful day."
A day made more wonderful by another ribbon to add to her collection, no doubt.
The thrills in Johnson's later years have come in more forms than baking competitions. She has been a recurring TV talk show guest, and has attended so many red carpet events as a member of the media that she has lost count: the Grammys, the Emmys, even the X Games. (Jay Leno once sent her as a correspondent for "The Tonight Show" to a motorcycle festival in Las Vegas. When she encountered a motorcycle trailing a smoker, she exclaimed: "Finally a bike I can relate to: one with an oven on it." She proceeded to bake cookies.)
Days before her milestone birthday — they're all milestones after 100, aren't they? — Johnson sat at her dining room table, next to a "hall of fame" of photos of her with talk show hosts, piles of ribbons fanned out on end tables, and a slice of sour cream coffee cake in front of her. The Star Tribune spoke with Johnson about her memories of the fair, her outlook on longevity, and her secret to getting celebrities to talk to her. (It's gingersnaps.) Here are excerpts from the conversation.
Q: What is your oldest memory of the fair?
A: I love the Minnesota State Fair. When I was growing up, my mother brought me to the State Fair and what I liked to do was ride the roller coaster. And my aunt and uncle had a building next to the bureau, or something, so they let me work there when I was growing up. It was really fun.
Q: Do you remember the feeling you had when you first won a ribbon?
A: Such elation. So, so happy. I love winning ribbons. I didn't have any goal about how many, but I just thought 'Wow, I guess I do know how to bake.' It was always a thrill.
Q: Do you still get that feeling?
A: Yeah, I get excited as though it were my first ribbon. Oh, boy, I like winning a ribbon. I love to bake and I love to talk. And I think maybe I love to talk more than I love to bake, because talking is so easy. The words just flow out as you can see, it's no effort. Baking does require some effort.
Q: How do you manage?
A: I do have some helpers, and my three children help me.
Q: What are your plans for your birthday?
A: We're going, my three children and I, to the "Barbie" movie. I think I lost my eyesight doing those little Barbie clothes; I made so many of them. My mother loved dolls, and I inherited and I love dolls, and my two girls love dolls. Everybody loves dolls.
Q: What's your exercise regimen?
A: You have to see that you get 30 minutes of exercise every day for your brain and to keep your strength up. And lately, when it's been so hot, I'm so glad I have this big house, because then we walk around inside. And then we walk [along] that sideboard that has all of those people, we call it our "hall of fame."
Q: I see Martha Stewart. Who else are you with in these photos?
A: That's Ellen. Ellen DeGeneres wanted me on her program, and the fellow from New York had me come out and talk to her [Johnson was filmed for the pilot episode], and he said, "Oh, I'll notify you in a couple months or something." Well, he didn't. In the meantime, he got a job in New York and he didn't want to come to California, so he didn't tell her. So when Wayne Brady asked if I wanted to be on his show, I said yes. And when Ellen heard that, she was so upset, because she wanted me on her show.
A: Jay Leno and I were on with Kelly Clarkson. Jay Leno always wanted to know how old I was, and I wouldn't tell him, I said it was a secret. Because back in those days if you were over 40 you were a has-been. And I was already about 80 years old when I was on Rosie O'Donnell's show.
Q: So you would just hang out on red carpets?
A: I was on the carpet so many times. Like about 200? 100? I was there a lot. I would go with a basket of my gingersnaps and say, "Do you want a gingersnap?" And they'd come and I'd interview them. There was a funny story. Helen Mirren said, "Yes, I'll take one." And then she walked a couple of steps and said, "No, I guess I need two." And then she came back and she said, "No, I really need three."
Q: Any advice for bakers who aspire to be more like you?
A: Just practice, practice. Practice really does make perfect. And the other thing, in case you enter the fair and don't win a ribbon: Don't. Give. Up! Just keep practicing some more and enter, because who knows? If they had a sixth ribbon, you might be the one that had it. So many people give up, they don't persist. You have to persist. If you have a goal, see that you make it.
Honey Apricot Sweet Roll Twists
Makes 18 rolls.
Note: Marjorie Johnson has won thousands of ribbons since she began entering Minnesota State Fair baking competitions in the early 1970s. After no longer being eligible for Creative Activities contests, she competes in the Honey division. Her key to winning in the honey division? "Use quality honey from a local hive." This recipe won a blue ribbon in 2022.
Sweet Roll Dough:
• 1/4 c. water (105-115 degrees)
• 1 pkg. active dry yeast
• 3/4 c. milk
• 1/3 c. honey
• 1 1/2 tsp. salt
• 1/4 c. (1/2 stick) softened butter
• 3 eggs
• 4 1/2 to 5 c. all-purpose flour
Apricot Honey Nut Filling:
• 1 c. chopped dried apricots
• 1/3 c. honey
• 1/3 c. water
• 1/2 c. chopped pecans
• 2 to 3 tbsp. butter
Dissolve yeast in warm water. Combine milk, honey, salt, butter and eggs in a large mixing bowl. Add dissolved yeast and half of the flour. Beat until smooth. Stir in remaining flour, use enough to make a soft dough. Knead 5 minutes until dough is soft and elastic. Place in greased bowl, cover and let rise until double. Punch down. Divide dough in half. Cover while making the filling.
In a small saucepan, place apricots, honey and water. Cook on low to medium heat for 8 to 10 minutes or until thickened, stirring frequently.
Take half of the sweet dough. Roll out to a 9- by 13-inch rectangle. Spread with butter, then the cooked apricot mixture. Sprinkle chopped nuts over half the long side. Fold dough in half. Cut into 1/2-inch strips. Twist each strip and place in a coil on a greased baking sheet. Cover and let rise until double in bulk. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 18 minutes. Remove from pan and cool on a wire rack.
With the other half of the sweet dough, you can make a second batch or use the dough for making cinnamon or caramel rolls.
Recipe tips from Marjorie Johnson
• Use a kitchen scissors to cut the dried apricots into 1/4-in. pieces.
• Use a pizza cutter to cut the strips of dough.
• Use a high-quality local honey.
• Making sweet dough with honey helps keep the finished baked product fresh, and less likely to dry out.