by Joan Kayse
By nature I am not a particularly competitive person. Sure, I've been competing in various contests with my manuscripts THE PATRICIAN'S FORTUNE and THE PATRICIAN'S DESIRE, my GH finaling manuscript. Both have placed in a handful of contests and while pleased with such, felt no particular rancor to those who placed higher than me. I just added it to my repertoire of experience and plowed onward. But I am driven in one area of my life: competitive baking at the Kentucky State Fair.
When the Fair rolls around, I roll up my sleeves, fire up my oven, turn my new, bright blue KitchenAid mixer on high and grease my pans.
It started innocently enough. I had been taking cake decorating classes and heard about how to enter that category. I labored long and hard on the perfect "Cabbage Patch Babies" sheet cake and won a green honorable mention ribbon.
I was hooked.
The next year I thought "Hm, how hard could it be to make a cake from scratch?" I entered a chocolate cake and won a BLUE ribbon. Stars shone in my eyes and a gnawing thirst for the grand prize...the cake sweepstakes began to bloom inside me.
Over the next decade I would bake and enter a cake in every category; coconut, pumpkin, devil's food, carrot...you name it and I baked it. I got to know the "inner circle". Oh, yes. There is definitely an inner circle to the state fair competition. You begin by recognizing names, you surreptitiously survey them at the display cases. You find yourself analyzing (critiquing, if you will) their icing techniques. You pretend to be eating a corn dog when in truth you're eavesdropping on their boasting about the type of butter they use. Grudgingly, you admit the 80 year old lady whose farmer husband dutifully drove her all the way from central Kentucky just to bring her mama's caramel cake in probably deserved to win.
But I still wanted that sweepstakes!
One year I had a wake up call as to how far I was falling into the dark world of powdered sugar and heavy cream the year we had a specialty contest for cookies.
These special contests are as nerve racking as sitting in the audience of the GH ceremony with Nora Roberts only three feet away. You bring your entries and sit and WATCH the judges eating your entry. You chew your nails, you whisper with your baking friends (yes, you do have some of those...Loretta and Juanita :-) and wait to see if you win.
The year I sank to my lowest low, I was having strained conversation with "The Queen" of cakes. Her ten year old granddaughter repeatedly interrupted us to tell me about her having won the junior division and having an article in the paper about it.
The girl was happy, giddy, ecstatic. I was doing my best to ignore it. I was the adult here, I kept reminding myself. She's a child, ignore it. But on the fifteenth time of hearing "I was in the paper" I snapped. Leveling her with a stern glare I said "Well, Nanny nanny poo poo."
I know. I'm horrible.
The girl, thankfully did not seem to understand the level I had fallen to. She gleefully skipped over to another section to fill them in on the news of her luck and I sank lower into my chair. To say it brought me to my senses is an understatement. It taught me a valuable lesson about keeping things in perspective. Thank goodness for Donna MacMeans, the Bandita who won my GH category. She may not remember, but at the end of the ceremony I offered her congratulations. If not for this turning point I might have nanny nanny pooed her LOL.
I did win the sweepstakes in 2003 and my chocolate chip cookies (renowned among my friends-recipe follows) have won a few ribbons. But the best prize I came away with is learning to take it as it comes. Keep it real, Joan. Keep it real.
Joan's Chocolate Chip Cookies
2 sticks butter, melted
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup brown sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
2 tsp. cream of tartar
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
2 2/3 cup all purpose floor
12 oz. bag mini chocolate chips
Beat sugars with butter. Add eggs. Add remaining ingredients. Stir in chocolate chips. Drop by rounded teaspoonfuls 1 inch apart on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 8-10 minutes or until lightly brown. Cool slightly before removing to racks to finish cooling. Makes 3 dozen.