At the Ventura County Fair, one of the most exciting events is the annual table setting competition.
That’s right. Table setting competition. It's a thing.
This year's action took place in a large pavilion, where five teams had one hour to transform a square dinner table into an original, functional piece of art that fit with the theme of "high tea."
Airen Faiss has been competing since 2010. "I thought well, it’s Ventura, and so it would be 'High Tea by the Sea.' I went beachy. But I went like Hampton’s beachy, not like sand castle beachy,” she said.
Her table featured a blue and white tablecloth; round, natural fiber placemats; white, curvy dinner plates topped with gold appetizer plates and blue napkins; two seashell candelabras holding up fake food (the rules ban real food) such as cucumber sandwiches and scones with whipped cream.
The top criteria for judging tables was how closely each person stuck to the rules, which included exact placement of the bread plate and exact silverware for what's on the menu (No soup? No soup spoon).
Faiss broke one rule: tablecloths were able to hang only 18 inches over the edge of the table. The other competitors had short, square tablecloths that hung just over the edge. Faiss' cloth was twice as long.
This wasn't Faiss first time competing. She won the competition her very first year in 2010, then again in 2018. She also won a separate award called the People's Choice, which allows fairgoers to cast their vote on a favorite table.
This year, Faiss’ goal was to win first place in the competition overall plus the People’s Choice.
Her mother, Marty McMillan, participated in these contests in the past, and said her own designs were less outlandish than her daughter's.
"She does something, it’s always 150%,” McMillan said. "She’s not satisfied with it being okay. And she’s been like that since she was a kid."
Faiss said she wasn't at the competition to make friends.
Her coach stood outside the competition area, giving notes and recommending adjustments to Faiss' table. She drove to Ventura from Northern California with her 2-month-old baby. This was the fifth time she coached Faiss. She was confident about a victory this year.
Many of the table setters were veteran contestants. But there were newcomers too, including Joanne Gibson, whose table had a Scottish theme. It featured a purple tablecloth, purple doily, a center bouquet of purple and white silk flowers, white floral china, a silver teapot, and a whimsical ceramic cat that displayed her tea menu.
When the judges handed down their verdicts, Gibson won the first place blue ribbon. Faiss received an Honorable Mention ribbon, and she was not happy about it.
"This is the big middle finger to me… I'm going to take it, and I'm just going to do more next year with it," Faiss said.
A few days later, Faiss received the results of People’s Choice. She got second.
Other contests tables: