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