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On her first trip to the big city from her home in International Falls in 1976, 16-year-old Dede Blowers met her future husband, Bill Hard, in the kitchen of the 4-H Building at the State Fair.

On Monday, Dede Hard, who turned 60 last week, served her final meal from the same kitchen. She has been the solo director of the operation since 2008, serving up some 36,000 meals each year.

She is not certain she is ready to be done with the job, which next year will be done by two hand-picked 30-somethings (including her son) who have been at her side for years.

“I knew before I left, I had to find qualified replacements. Those two are ready,” she said. “I hope they call me and say, ‘Mom, I need you.’ I’ll be down here in a heartbeat.”

In any event, next year she won’t be leading the crew through 20-hour days that begin with an hour of truck unloading at 4:30 a.m. and wrap up at midnight after the following day’s logistics are completed.

Hard, a mother of four who is still married to the Falcon Heights guy she met 43 years ago, has been at the fair every August since 1985 (following five years off while working after college). The couple breeds goldendoodles at Red Cedar Farms in Hutchinson.

But nothing has come between Hard and the fair. One year she was nine months pregnant with her son Alex, who turns 33 on Sept. 18.

Brian, now 32, came to the fair as an infant along with a nanny who stayed in the women’s bunkroom near the kitchen; the nanny brought Brian to Hard when it was time to nurse.

For years, Hard has ordered the food, organized the crew and overseen preparations. The 4-H kitchen gets the biggest food delivery at the fair.

On the Monday before the fair starts, Hard and her crew would begin cooking the meat: 600 pounds of turkey roasted and pulled off the bones, then the ground beef cooked and seasoned for walking tacos.

“It is the most challenging job I’ve had in my life,” Hard said, but she has loved putting the puzzle together.

Three times a day for 12 days, at least 300 kids and staff have pulled up chairs to the long rectangular tables for meals prepared by Hard and her crew. Her diners are the 4-H winners from Minnesota’s 87 counties.

“You’ve got a cafeteria line that serves things they may never have had in their lives,” she said. “They look at it and say, ‘What’s that?’ That’s part of their education.”

At the start of the fair, when the livestock kids are there for five days, there’s extra work. The 4-Hers are served, but meals also have to be driven three times a day to the livestock buildings. On those days, Hard and her staff of 30 serve about 5,000 meals per day.

That drops off to about 1,500 meals per day just for 4-Hers, as well as the arts kids and llama crews who come in.

For the staffers Hard has hired, it’s often the first job they have had.

“They get their socks knocked off by what it’s really like,” she said. “By the end of the second or third day, they’re this tight little group.”

All of Hard’s kids have worked in the kitchen. Kevin Hard, who farms with his family near Duluth, will take over running the operation next year with Hannah Rojas, a nursing-home aide and family friend who lives with her three young kids in Dassel, Minn.

On Monday, Kevin was marking plastic containers of leftover sausage while Rojas baked cookies, cut bars and stored cake sprinkles left over from 1,800 cupcakes served earlier at a single meal.

‘The funnest part’

Between breakfast and lunch, Hard sat down Monday to talk about her final fair. She had been working 20-hour days for two weeks and claimed to be exhausted, but looked fresh and happy.

Most of the dishes Hard has served over the years were made from scratch. The recipes came from friends and family: Her mother-in-law’s beef stroganoff and her grandma’s blueberry cheesecake. Neighbor Lisa’s recipe for French dip sandwich was always a crowd pleaser. “We slow-roast that beef,” Hard said, divulging a trick.

The chocolate éclair dessert was everyone’s favorite and the most requested recipe, Hard and Rojas agreed, made of multiple layers of graham crackers, vanilla pudding and whipped topping and crowned with fudge.

Mistakes were made along the way. One time, a cake came out hard because a cook didn’t add enough water. The solution was to pour Jell-O over the top, and Jell-O cake promptly became a favorite.

During the dinner rush a couple of years ago the dish room drain stopped working, flooding the room with 6 inches of standing water that began seeping to the public displays on the first floor.

Every year, Hard starts with an empty kitchen. By the time she and the crew wrap up Wednesday, they will leave nothing behind.

“That’s the funnest part — how to use up all the product,” she said.

Over the years, Hard has compiled binders with recipes scaled to serve hundreds. “It takes years before you can look at a pan of meat and say, ‘There’s 80 servings of meat,’ ” she said.

Abby Penzenstadler, the 4-H facilities operations intern, said Hard was always upbeat and calm.

“She’s so busy, but she always asks me how I’m doing and wants to give me a hug,” Penzenstadler said.

But Hard said the final day was especially bittersweet this year. “These kids start to leave and I cry like a baby,” she said.

After a final meal Tuesday of pulled turkey on croissants, fresh fruit, potato and green salads, and freshly baked cookies, Hard will untie her apron and spend a day wrapping everything up. She expected to be done and in her car by noon Wednesday.

“Then I go home and sit on my porch with my hubby and drink coffee,” she said.