Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Just Call Me Betty

Crocker, that is. You know Betty, of the gingham-covered cookbook? I'm sorry, what?

Hold on a sec, would you? (It's not? Oh geez....)

I was just informed that it's the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook that's gingham, not the Betty Crocker cookbook. (Sheesh.) Well, that'll just help me make my point. Guess what I just did?

No, I didn't run ten miles (my thighs wish). No, I didn't spot Matt Damon at the local cafe (*I* wish). No, I didn't shave my head (nobody wishes - except maybe Rob's ex-grrlfriend).

I judged canned items at the county fair.

That's alright, take your time. I'll wait for you to stop laughing. (cue "muzak")

I know it's funny. I know it's hilarious. I even know it's completely out of left-field, completely out of character, and completely astonishing that I'd do that. Or that they'd ask me to do that. Or that they'd ask me, I'd say yes, and get paid to do it.

Yea, see - now you're looking indignant. Yessiree, they paid me to look at the canned items in each category and assign first, second, and third places.

I was actually a wee bit nervous. I mean, who'm I to think I'm some sort of canning goddess? And because I was indeed doubting my own qualifications, naturally I had a run-in with Farmer Bill on my way there (which didn't help my confidence any, as you can imagine). Rob must've told him what I was up to, because as I jogged to my van (running late is a sure-fire Farmer-Bill-attracting activity) he yelled, "Have you ever even canned a g*d-d*mned thing in your life?!"

Yes! I can garden food every summer!

"You DO?! Well, I didn't know that."

Aunt Nancy said that hearing I'm a judge ruins her faith in the county fair.

"You can say that again."

Ya gotta love family.

Funny thing, though, is I had a blast. And I DO indeedy know a thing-er-two about canning. Like you're supposed to leave 1/2 inch of headspace, which one person repeatedly did not - and entered about a dozen things. (Tsk, tsk.) And you're supposed to cover the food with the liquid, which several entries conspicuously lacked. (One was canned beef - Ew.) And color matters. And uniformity, and consistency, and appearance. And yes, taste, although we weren't advised to open jars unless we really needed to. (My aunt wisely pointed out I'd risk botulism if someone didn't know how to properly can. One might assume all fair entrants would be canning goddesses (or, ok, gods), but perhaps not, and I'm not especially fond of difficulty swallowing, slurred speech, or muscle paralysis.)

When I was finished judging the canned items I was asked to help with the baked goods. Now that sounds like a delicious task, I agree, but tasting several dozen bakery items starts getting the ol' gut churning. Especially for a GID-gal like m'self. (GID being one of our new favorite Willow-inspired terms, standing for "Gastro-Intestinal Distress." As in, I've got the GIDs. Or, that was a mean case of the GIDs this morning. Or, that goopy-looking row of cookies is gonna give me the GIDs.)

And when you think of the county fair, don't you conjure up images of all the best cooks this side of the Mississippi? A bunch of Betty Crockers with gingham aprons on (she wore a gingham apron at least, didn't she?) and mixing bowls in arm, with strong right biceps from stirring enough batter to keep fresh-baked cookies on hand at all times? Round-bellied kitchen goddesses who whack you with a wooden spoon if you dip a finger into the bowl? Pies cooling on windowsills, flour-sack towels freshly stacked in drawers, and a creaky screen door leading out back?

Well, my friends, times are a'changing. Who woulda thought I could taste 11 peanut butter cookies and not find one that made my eyes roll back in peanut-butter-ecstasy? Believe me - it happens.

And sometimes the sorriest-looking entries taste the best, and the perfectly displayed ones taste like styrofoam. One child entered the most pathetic looking cookies ever baked (trust me) but we laughed it was probably the most honest entry there. Despite my apprehension I did taste them. Aw, well, (choke), how sweet.

Judging is both a dream come true and my worst nightmare. (Note: Slight exaggeration.) I loved analyzing each entry, admiring the handwriting styles, reading the sometimes overly honest detailing of some. (One requirement was to specify the canning method - one entrant shared that her jelly didn't set the first time so she added more pectin and retried. Points for honesty.) I checked for seals and headspace. I opened a few when they didn't look like what they were supposed to be. I lined them up in order of best to worst. I made notes of what was wrong when something didn't get chosen.

But I also felt terrible that some didn't win. I appreciate all the hard work that goes into it, especially when I notice the same entrants (identified only by number) submitted food in several different categories. Any person who goes to the trouble of picking and preserving 6 different kinds of jelly deserves a medal of honor in my book. Her family should kneel at her feet in praise every time they spread a spoonful on their toast.

I was really wishing I had a pile of toast handy when judging the jellies and jams. Nothing like a jar of homemade jelly to make you think all is right with the world.

The baked goods were a little trickier. I did the junior department and that can be a little worrisome. I remember when I was teaching and students would bring me homemade goodies. Depending upon the giver, I'd sometimes have to toss a whole tin-full of baked goods. I didn't want to, but when a kid comes to school every day covered in dog hair and smelling like pee and old socks, well, I'm not going to eat their food. Sorry. (Wait, no I'm not. I waited until they were gone to throw them away. I'm not entirely heartless.)

I've come a long way in the fair community, from washing steer butts to judging canned goods. I used to bake my muffins the morning of the fair without having practiced even once. I used to dig out old drawings and smooth them out instead of drawing something special to enter. I was what you might call a "last minute find an entry" kinda grrl. I even entered a parakeet one year, and it won grand champion. Who knows why. I didn't know a thing about parakeets. We had one in a cage, I entered it. My dad's friend made fun of me by asking if it was hard to handle the parakeet as I walked it around the judging ring. I cried. (I still run into him on occasion, and I still cry. I wonder if his ears ring when his name comes up in my therapy sessions.)

Photo: Me with my assistant, the lovely and incredibly helpful Brittany, who asked many questions, fetched water and paper towels, and shuttled jars back and forth. I think the little stinker is aiming for my job.

But the kitchen goddesses are chuckling now that I'm a judge. Me, who resisted any and all attempts by mom to foster interest in cooking and gardening. Me, who made a huge, whiny fuss about being in 4-H (until fair time, when I got to live there for a week straight). Me, who had not a lick of interest in becoming a wife, or a mother, or a stay-at-home mother, or a homeschooling-stay-at-home mother, or a cooking-gardening-cornfield-living-homeschooling-stay-at-home-wife-and-mother.

Me - a fair judge. Go figure.


plf said...

Hey there Betty - that was wonderfully amusing . . . I have been tempted over the years to enter my "daily bread" at the fair, but knew that the minute I did it, that would be the day they baked up flat and wrinkly, tough and dry rather than warm, brown, rounded and toothsome . . .I can hear your judging comments now!

joanieji said...

the peaches I canned last night were blue ribbon quality-no false modesty for me! I've often wanted to enter my stuff into the ring despite the nail biting tension. who gets to see all the luscious jeweled jars of yummy goodness except me since they're all hidden away in a dark cavern in the basement. PLF I'd like to pair up a killer combo - your wheaty wonders and my willow raspberry (black or red) jam at the fair - a sure winner...or we kill the judge

Laura said...

Ply me with homemade goods and I'll pull some strings....

K. said...

This post reminded me of when I was a teenager, and my mother belatedly and with alarm tried to convince me to let her teach me how to cook. When I told her "no thanks" she said, "What will you do when you get married and your husband expects you to cook?" I answered, naturally, "I'll marry a guy who cooks." Which I did, rather fortuitously (and accidentally, really, but don't tell my Mom). He also makes insanely good chocolate chip cookies. Now THAT'S job security.

Silvia said...

Wow! I had no idea you had such skills! Not to mention judging. Ok, remind me not to enter any canned or baked goods at any fairs, ever. I'm afraid I'd kill someone. :) Well, not with the baked stuff. You go grrrl!

Laura said...

k- I always thought I'd need to marry a man who cooks, and my hubby does have an uncanny knack for tossing scavenged fridge tidbits into a skillet and it tastes darn good, but otherwise he doesn't really cook. Guess you could say my hand was forced and I got all "a good mama cooks for her brood" despite myself.

and silvia- you wouldn't kill anyone, though for a minute there I worried you meant if you didn't win... btw, have you met my friend Joan? ;)