My neighborhood has an annual Labor Day cooking contest. The hostess decides on the type of food, the neighbors cook up their best dishes, and everyone at the party votes for their favorite. The year we moved in, the competition was for the best homemade salsa.
I’m competitive as hell, but I’m not a good cook. Luckily, my husband is an excellent cook, and he makes an amazing homemade salsa.
“Ha-ha,” I carolled. “They may as well hand over that prize now!”
“Maybe. My salsa might be too spicy. There’s a lot of white people on our block,” Andy cautioned me. “And someone never lets me put in onions, which a lot of other people love.”
“White onions are an abomination,” I reminded him. Yes, I’m the onion-hater. I have been since I first bit into a McDonald’s cheeseburger covered in the heinous things. I was the child with the special order before every order was special. I was also smart enough to marry a fantastic chef who modifies all the recipes to remove onions. But I generously told him, “You can use some green onions if it’ll help you win.”
“Yeah, and we’ll put the salsa in my cut-crystal bowl, and use my grandmother’s little silver spoons, and use the other crystal tray to hold the chips.”
“You don’t think that’s kind of fancy? For salsa?”
“The rules say you get judged on taste AND appearance,” I reminded him. Andy capitulated, letting me arrange the salsa and chips on elegant crystal.
He won, of course. He says it was the green onions, but I knew it was the crystal.
The next year’s competition was for best appetizer. I arranged Andy’s potstickers on a ceramic tray, which he approved, but the man rolled his eyes when I brought out crystal for the dipping sauce.
He won again.
The year after that Andy won with his caprese salads, artfully arranged on a silver platter.
The following year, all dishes for the contest had to contain potatoes. As I began to plan out Andy’s poutine dish, he shooed me away, saying, “Make your own entry!”
“But I’m not a good cook,” I whined.
“Your desserts are awesome.”
“But desserts don’t have potatoes!”
“Don’t you have that old Pillsbury baking book with recipes from the 1950s? The one you won’t let me throw out? Try that thing.”
I checked. And there was actually a chocolate cake recipe with instant mashed potato flakes. I made it, added some killer icing, dipped some Pringles in ganache for garnish, and arranged it on crystal, of course.
Andy stuck his poutine in a pie pan.
Our hostess announced the winner by first calling out, “This year the winner isn’t Andy!” Amid gasps and some hastily stifled cheers, she then said, “It’s Autumn.”
There may have been a few muttered grumbles about how potato flakes shouldn’t count, but I didn’t care. Beating thirty other dishes, especially Andy’s poutine with homemade French fries and gravy, felt like a real accomplishment.
The following year, the theme was brunch. Andy arrived with a timballo, while I made pain du Mom, a baked French toast in a custard sauce.
I won again.
Last year, contestants had to bring a “family dish,” a type of food they cooked on a regular basis, possibly cultural. I made “Six-hour Cake,” a triple layer Devil’s food cake with poured ganache frosting, because I make that for Andy’s birthday every year (my family had no culinary tradition beyond Hamburger Helper). Andy, perhaps still smarting from his defeat two years in a row, refused to participate.
Before voting started, however, our hostess made a surprise announcement. “This year,” she said, we will have winners in two categories: savory and sweet! And there will be one prize for appearance and another prize for taste!” There was a notable amount of cheering, especially as the other contestants realized that Andy hadn’t brought his potstickers or hot and sour soup (because he is foolish and didn’t listen to me we could have won EVERYTHING).
I can’t remember what dishes won in the savory category, but my cake took first in sweets for taste. Then the hostess said, “You also won for appearance, but since you already have one prize, I’m giving the first place prize to the runner-up. That’s okay, isn’t it?”
I wanted to yell, “Hell, no, it’s not, that cake really does take six hours to make and piping the trim isn’t easy! Hand over the booty, woman!” but of course I smiled politely and nodded as some uninspired drop-cookie maker sailed off with the autumn-themed cheese knives that should have been mine.
Last weekend, the contest theme was “finger food.” I had my dish all planned – ladyfingers, made from European sponge cake batter, complete with pink strawberry fruit cloud cream manicures. What could be more perfect than a finger pun, right?
Except that it was 100 degrees with 99% humidity (unheard of in Los Angeles). So my nicely rounded fingers melted down, losing their shape before they even got in the oven.
After one smallish temper tantrum, I hit upon a solution: I turned the flattened fingers into sandwiches filled with strawberry fruit cloud cream. They were now Vienna Fingers.
But I was nervous as I placed my crystal cake plates on the judging table for desserts. My European sponge cakes were soaking up the humidity like, well, sponges, getting stickier by the second. A well-created chocolate chip cookie might trounce my ladyfingers.
I retreated to the patio to brood and sweat with the other guests. A parade of paper plates passed by over the next hour, but I didn’t see a single ladyfinger.
Eventually, I went to the table, ready to pass the trays of ladyfingers around the party myself.
My empty crystal plates sat on an empty table.
The hostess tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I think you scared off all the other contestants.”
“You were the only one who brought a dessert entry.”
“Really? I’m it?”
“Yeah, so congratulations! You’ll win.”
She was right. I did win.
Winning unopposed wasn’t satisfying at all.
It felt more like getting a booby prize for “Who Is the Overly Competitive Amateur Baker Stupid Enough to Turn on an Oven When It’s 100 Degrees Out?”
Maybe it’s time to retire.
Or maybe…maybe next year I can convince Andy to try a dessert.