Our neighborhood holds a cooking contest over Labor Day weekend. The hostess picks a different ingredient or theme each year.
My husband Andy is an amazing cook. He won until the year of the potato. I snuck in a potato flake cake from a 50s recipe. My chocolate crushed the competition – including my husband. The following year, the hostess split the competition, creating two different categories: one for savory items, one for sweets.
Last year Andy didn’t enter a savory dish. He says it was because it was a hundred degrees and there was no way he was turning on the stove.
In reality, he was sulking because he hadn’t won since I started entering, of course. And he wasn’t the only one. My Vienna fingers were the only entry in the “sweet” category last year.
“It’s utterly deflating to win by neighborhood forfeit,” I told Andy as I put away my prizes (an essential oil dispenser and pastel mini-skewers). “Especially after turning the kitchen into a sauna.”
“Yeah, well, it’s better than the year I made enchilada sauce from scratch and lost to canned sauce,” Andy countered.
I patted Andy’s arm. “I know, honey. And your poutine should totally have trounced my potato cake.”
“Of course! You made your gravy and French fries from scratch and they were so good.”
“No one else thought so.”
“Our neighborhood is mostly eaties, not a foodies. Their palates are tuned to mass-produced food. It’s like…they’re the Habsburg Emperor in Amadeus. And you’re Mozart and only I, Salieri, can truly see and appreciate your genius.”
Andy laughed, looking more cheerful. “Should I be worried that some day you’re going to engineer my death, then?”
“I’m already working on it. High cholesterol desserts, right? Hey, maybe next year you should make a dessert. Then at least I’d have someone to compete against. And one of us would win for sure,” I said.
Andy gave me a look, because he knew that I knew that baked goods aren’t Andy’s forte. I once left him with 16 maple sugar rugelach cookies to roll up and bake while I ran off on a late-minute Christmas errand. I came back to 16 bizarre, burnt, butterflyesque shapes. I still don’t know how he did that.
So sure, it was easy enough for me to suggest he go up against my chocolate cakes or killer cookies. I wasn’t remotely worried he’d win.
I’m stupid and arrogant like that.
Last week I came home from visiting my family on the East Coast and found the flyer for this year’s cooking contest:
After last year’s sizzlefest of a party, the hostess was going all in on cold food items.
“Excellent,” I said, visions of this year’s trophy flashing before my eyes. “I can make chocolate mousse. Or chocolate oblivion truffle. Wait! I know. Chocolate éclairs – no, miniature chocolate éclairs! Yes, those will be perfect, I’ll put them on my crystal plate and I’ll make one cream puff to put in the center to hold the label.”
It wasn’t until later that I bothered to ask Andy, “Are you gonna make anything this year? We should plan out who gets the kitchen when this week.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it.”
“You’re not making anything? Come on, how about your Vietnamese spring rolls? Or gazpacho?”
“No, I meant don’t worry about the kitchen. I already made my dish.”
“Really? What did you make?”
“Well, the apples were starting to go bad so I made apple ice-cream.” Andy pulled it out of the freezer and offered me a spoonful. “But it’s not very good.”
It wasn’t. The taste was okay, but it had a lot of ice chips. I was relieved. Andy’s ice cream was usually delicious, because ice-cream isn’t baking. Ice-cream is a custard, cooked on the stove top before being chilled and churned in the ice-cream maker. Andy may suck at the oven, but he rules the range. He’s made an excellent strawberry cheesecake ice-cream, which would have been hard to beat.
And his caramel pear ice-cream is to fucking die for.
“Stupid Los Angeles Times recipe,’ Andy grumbled. Then he brightened and pulled out another, larger container. “But then I remembered we have pears!”
Feelings of foreboding stirred, even as I pointed out that the pears weren’t ripe yet. We have a pear tree in our yard, along with two plum trees, an orange tree, a lemon tree, a lime tree, and a grapefruit tree. Citrus trees are like weeds in Southern California, but the pears generally don’t do very well. This year the pears were small, hard, and minimal.
“Yes, but I froze the pears from last year’s bumper crop,” Andy explained.
“No,” I whispered. “Oh, no.” Last year’s drought-ending rains had sent our tree into a pear-producing frenzy. For the first time, the pears even had taste.
“Yes! I made caramel pear ice-cream! Out of our own, homegrown pears. They’re even organic.”
“Nooooo,” I moaned. I’d never beat that combination. Unless…
“How are you going to serve your ice-cream?” I asked. Dishes get points for appearance as well as taste. Andy had a tendency to just dump his food into whatever stainless steel bowl was handy.
“Well, I was going to make waffle cones, only I discovered it’s impossible without a waffle-maker. Then I was going to make sugar cones, except that it’s hard to roll the cones without burning yourself. I finally turned them into sugar spoons and I’m going to drizzle the extra caramel on top!”
“Doomed. My miniature éclairs are fucking doomed.”
“Hey, you’re the one who said I should switch categories!”
“I didn’t know it would be ice-cream,” I wailed. “Sweets are the only thing I’m better at making than you!”
“That’s not true. Certain people think your beef burgundy is better than mine,” Andy said, with no small amount of huff. When he’d been injured last year, I’d had to do the cooking. Turns out I had a gift for the crockpot.
Which was when I realized that I wasn’t the only person in our household who sometimes needed a win. Even if it was only the neighborhood cooking contest. Andy had had a pretty shitty year, filled with surgery, crutches, canes, painful rehab, and forced dependence on a wife who sometimes made Nurse Ratched look loving.
I sighed. “Maybe I should make deviled eggs or something.”
“In addition to éclairs?”
“No instead of éclairs. Because I’d just be going for second place.”
“But what if I win like you did last year, just because no one else even entered?”
“Fine, I’ll enter my boring éclairs and you can beat me for once. Will that make you happy?”
“You know it, Salieri.”
Additional note from Autumn: As I predicted, Andy won the contest and universal acclaim. Second place went to a bloody teenager who made chocolate pudding and obviously intimidated attendees into voting for her. One kid actually said he feared for his life if he didn’t vote for the pudding!
Maybe next year I will reclaim my crown. Or maybe I’ll sulk like Andy.