Taste vs. Appearance (#341)

My neighborhood holds an annual cooking competition over Labor Day every year (with the exception of Plague Year 2020). Each year has a different required ingredient.

My amazing chef of a husband crushed the competition for years, starting with the salsa competition. Until he foolishly got tired of me micromanaging the presentation of his dishes: “My poutine does not need to in your grandmother’s cut crystal bowl! It’s fine!”

“But the flyer says you get judged on taste AND appearance.”

“I’m using the pie dish! You want to use crystal, make your own contest entry!”

I’m a baker, not a chef, but I figured out how to sneak potato flakes into a chocolate cake and won. Because everyone likes chocolate AND I put it on a pretty crystal platter.

Andy sulked for a year or two while I raked in the wins. The hostess then created two winners: one for Sweet and one for Savory. Andy promptly trounced me with his ice cream.

After that Andy and I dominated in our respective categories. The hostess then decided to have two winners in each category: one for taste and one for appearance. Last year Andy lost out to blander dishes because his hot wings made the neighborhood children cry. I lost on taste to what Andy called “an overly sweet” key lime pie, but my piped maple buttercream cupcakes won for appearance.

Maple Cupcakes
Andy’s wings and dressing.

I shook my head over Andy’s loss and opined, “It’s kind of on you, babe. If you aren’t going to modify the taste to suit the neighborhood, you gotta at least TRY to win for appearance. Those kids have never had real buttercream and some of them spat out my frosting because they expected the usual sacrilegious American mixture of powdered sugar and shortening. But my piping and display were pretty, while you tossed your wings into an aluminum pan and stuck your blue cheese dip into a takeout container. Appearance matters!”

“No one cares about how it looks, Mom,” Dalton interjected, with an eye roll.

“YOU don’t care how things look,” I shot back, with an eye roll of my own. “You don’t even comb your hair. Other people care. If it doesn’t look good, they might not even try it.”

“Good,” said Dalton. “Then it will be all for me!”

Dalton, a growing boy who was growing more ravenous as he played more soccer, now wanted ALL the food. My chocolate chip cookie recipe made about 85 cookies. 24 hours after I made those cookies, they were gone.

I stared at the empty cookie cannister and asked Andy, “How many cookies did you have, honey?”

“I had maybe five yesterday and two this morning.”

“And I had three, meaning…Dalton!” I yelled. “Get your butt in here!”

Dalton dribbled his soccer ball into the kitchen, eyes wide and innocent.

“You ate SEVENTY-FIVE cookies in twenty-four hours, young man!”

“But I couldn’t have, Mother,” Dalton answered. He lifted up his shirt and pointed to his trim midriff. “Where could they have gone? Not in this belly—look, nice and flat!”

“You’re hilarious, skinny boy. Go wash the empty container.”

I began modifying recipes in an effort to slow the child’s rate of consumption. I used whole wheat flour. I added oatmeal. I tried an orange and cranberry modification when we had oranges on our tree. I finally settled on an oatmeal, coconut, chocolate chip cookie with toffee.

It wasn’t the prettiest cookie.cookie dough on parchment paper It was more high maintenance than my other drop cookies, since it had to be baked on parchment paper or the toffee bits would stick to the baking sheets. But Dalton couldn’t eat them all in 24 hours and he declared it his “favorite cookie.”

a container of lumpy cookies
D’s Favorite cookie

******

This year, Dalton had a soccer tournament over Labor Day weekend. We’d have no time to cook before the party started. We probably wouldn’t even get home until after the judging ended on Sunday afternoon.

I sighed and told Andy, “I guess the Ashbough-Wong winning streak is finally over.”

He shrugged and said, “It’s really too hot to cook anyway.”

Even at the coast, it was close to 100 degrees. On the turf soccer field? 110 degrees. (The players were dumping ice on each other when subbed out.)

Saturday evening, the cooking competition hostess texted the neighborhood: It’ll be 100 degrees tomorrow at noon. Should we move the party to tomorrow evening or Monday?

I texted back immediately: Monday! We can definitely make it on Monday!

The neighborhood voted for Sunday at 5 PM.

“The fix is in,” Andy joked on our drive home.

“I can make something, but it doesn’t give me enough time to make the golden butter cake with the diced almonds and raspberry buttercream frosting,” I fretted. “What pretty dessert can I make in two hours or less? With ground, diced, or minced ingredients?”

“Cookies!” yelled Dalton from the backseat.

“But they aren’t pretty. And they don’t have ground, diced or minced—wait. I do use the stone-ground wheat flour…”

I made “D-Fav” cookies.

picture of a cookie with ingredients listedAndy threw together spicy Thai tofu. We made it to the party with fifteen minutes to spare.

This year, there were more kids at the party than food dishes. Families would bring one entry…and three children. Our hostess was thrilled to see my enormous platter of cookies.

“Thank goodness,” she exclaimed. “So far there is only the one apple-bread-cake thing and some lemon bars on the dessert table.”

Andy’s tofu was competing against Persian kebabs, homemade naan, smoked pork belly, meatballs, caprese salad (with no ground anything that I could see), shrimp ceviche, a chicken dish with shredded carrots, and various other forgettable dishes.

I liked Andy’s dish the best, but he wasn’t optimistic. “It’s tofu. Nobody votes for tofu.”

“Well, at least you brought something. I don’t think there’s enough food.”

Sure enough, almost every serving dish was empty by the end of the judging—including my massive platter (much to Dalton’s dismay).

The teens tallied up the votes and handed the results to the hostess.

She announced, “In the savory category, pork belly wins for taste and the kebabs win for appearance!”

“Told you,” Andy whispered as folks cheered. “It’s meat for this crowd.”

“And for the sweet category,” the hostess continued, “the winner for taste is the D-Fav cookies, and the winner for appearance is—wait a minute. Kids, I told you the same dish can’t win in both categories!”

The teens gave the hostess blank stares. One youngster muttered, “But the cookies won both categories. And they were the best.”

The kid’s mom gave her an elbow in the ribs and said, “You should know, you ate ten of them.”

To the teens, a lumpy appearance didn’t matter. Neither did arbitrary adult rules.

The kids are all right.

Picture of a wrapped gift with a gold bow and a card that says "Congratulations."

But the hostess still wouldn’t give me two prizes.

Christmas Cat Attack (#333)

I refer to the time between the end of November and Christmas as “Baking Season.”

It starts with my husband’s six-hour birthday cake (although sometimes he asks for a giant éclair or a chocolate pie), then segues into Thanksgiving desserts (pumpkin cheesecake and maple pie). After that, I make literally hundreds of cookies for Christmas. There are tins for teachers and heaping piles for my familial horde when we travel.

I also bring cookies to parties, carefully arranged on holiday themed platters. This is actually my favorite part—making my project pretty. I’m the same way about preparing my house for a party or dinner. Vacuuming and cleaning bathrooms are a miserable chore. Putting out the gorgeous old tablecloths and fine china? So fun.

My fun became more of a chore once Boss Cat, feline marauder extraordinaire, joined our household. The rescue group made us promise to put the obese Boss Cat on a diet.

Boss Cat after losing a lot of weight.

Boss Cat thought diets were bullshit. Once she lost enough weight to be able to jump onto the dining room table, she was relentless.

If you turned your back for two seconds, she’d snag a strip of bacon from your plate. Or a piece of chicken. Or even TOFU AND RICE. Continue reading Christmas Cat Attack (#333)

Christmas Cookies (#332)

First book of Cookies, by Natalie Haughton

Years ago, my friend JM bought me a cookie recipe book. I tried the recipe for cream cheese sugar cookies for a Christmas party. They were a hit. Sometimes I brought those cookies into work during the holidays, sometimes I took the recipe home and made them for whichever siblings/ parental units I was visiting on the East Coast.

My family started requesting those cookies—probably because the only other person who made cookies was my brother-in-law, Georgia Boy. His gumdrop cookies were a nostalgic holiday tribute to his grandmother. They were also awful.

But even Big Brother wasn’t tactless enough to say this to Georgia Boy. Instead, he and Doctor Sister would wait for Georgia Boy to go on a bike ride and suggest I make cookies and let their children “help.” It was a win-win for them—I’d be entertaining First Niece, Second Niece, and Second Nephew for hours and the kitchen would be unavailable. Continue reading Christmas Cookies (#332)

Sweetsgiving (#330)

I love sweets. But as a kid with a ton of siblings and not enough money, sweets only appeared in abundance for special events.

My parents’ weddings had cake. Birthdays began with doughnuts. Halloween had candy. Christmas had cookies.

Thanksgiving? A total letdown. My mom and stepfatherspent hours trying to get their homemade cranberry sauce to come out of a ridiculous antique rose mold. It molded properly exactly once and ALWAYS tasted bitter. And pumpkin pie? Could there BE a blander pie?

My dad made the only decent Thanksgiving dessert—apple pie. So of course our Labrador retriever Toffee got on the counter and ate it. Continue reading Sweetsgiving (#330)

Wings & Sweet Things (#325)

My neighborhood holds an annual cooking contest the Sunday before Labor Day.

The stakes? Bragging rights and cheese knives.

The contestants? Everyone on the block.

The outcome? My Chinese American husband dominated for years. Then I started entering chocolate baked goods and crushed him. The hostess finally created two categories, one for “Savory” and one for “Sweet.” Andy vengefully jumped categories and destroyed me with caramel pear ice-cream.

Two years ago, we tied. Last year, the contest was canceled because of COVID.

Two weeks ago, this showed up in my mailbox:

Continue reading Wings & Sweet Things (#325)

Celebration Mash-Up (#316)

Holidays were huge in my white family. We wore green, pinched each other anyway, and listened to the Irish Rovers on St. Patrick’s Day (despite being Protestant or atheists). Small gifts appeared on Valentine’s Day morning. There were Easter egg hunts and chocolate bunnies. Our birthdays began with presents and towers of doughnuts. Christmas magic (and excesses) went on for days.

Holidays were not big in my Chinese-American husband’s family. Growing up, he got a red envelope with cash, usually from his Popo, on Chinese New Year.

That was it.

Even though some Wong family members were very earnest Christians, there were neither Easter baskets nor Christmas stockings. Continue reading Celebration Mash-Up (#316)

Turkey Day Birthday (#308)

TUESDAY, T-MINUS 2 DAYS

6 AM: Suicidal squirrels dart in front of dog on walk. We go down in a heap on cement, one of us swearing all the way. Badly bruised knee, road rash through pants, banged up hip and wrist. Nothing broken. Unfortunate. Still stuck having to cook up Thanksgiving & Birthday dinner for husband.

12:20 PM: Start on crust for Chocolate Satin pie husband requested. Baby D dismantles Oreos for the chocolate crust while I limp around kitchen.

1:30 PM: Pull pie crust out of oven. Discover sides have slid to the bottom of pie pan. Tell Baby D to quit eating all the Oreo middles while scrambling to find more reputable recipe online. Wonder who the fuck bribed 100+ people to write glowing reviews of crap pie recipe.

2 PM: Settle on Epicurious chocolate cream pie because have all the ingredients. Cook filling and bake pie crust while Baby D sneaks more Oreo middles.

4 PM: Assemble pie and refrigerate. Baby D moans about tummy ache and swears off Oreos forever. Continue reading Turkey Day Birthday (#308)

Turkeys (#307)

Once upon a time, birthdays were a huge deal in my family. Being showered with cake and presents made it the best day of the year.

My Chinese-American husband’s family wasn’t like that. Birthdays were no big deal. In fact, Andy’s grandmother was very superstitious about celebrating, especially as she reached her 90s. “If you have a big celebration that makes a lot of noise,” she said, “you’re just reminding the evil spirits that you’re still alive. They might decide to rectify that situation.” Continue reading Turkeys (#307)

When You Need Some Aid in the Kitchen (#300)

For more than a decade, our Labor Day weekend has been marked by intense kitchen rivalry, thanks to the neighborhood cooking contest.

Andy trounced everyone for years—until he got tired of me micro-managing the presentation of his savory entries and told me to make my own dish. I did, and he was sorry after I crushed him and our whole neighborhood with my baked goods. Two years ago, Andy staged a comeback and walloped me. Last year, we tied.

Some of Andy’s doughnuts.

This year was looking to be a showdown. Andy spent quarantine mastering everything from French bread to homemade doughnuts, prepping for a possible assault on my baking territory.

There have been casualties:

My waistline.

An immolated dish towel. Continue reading When You Need Some Aid in the Kitchen (#300)

Burned (#291)

My Chinese-American husband is a fantastic cook. Andy can make any cuisine, from pulled pork barbecue to agedashi tofu.

Andy’s beef Wellington

His eggs Benedict are sublime. Pretty sure I joined Instagram just to make people envious over of his beef Wellington.

I am content to give Andy the cooking crown in our household. I focus on baking, which is my strength.

I stay in my lane.

Andy is NOT staying in his lane. Continue reading Burned (#291)

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