"This is great! This is everybody's dream," said Linda Scott, first-time baked goods judge at the 2009 Deschutes County Fair.
From 10:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. the day before the fair kicked off this year, Linda tasted every single entry in the senior and adult categories. Linda's parents ran Gibb's Bakery in Redmond for 45 years, so the woman knows her way around a pie or two. In five hours she sampled nut pies and divinity, cakes and fudge, enough chocolate cookies to satiate the most vicious bout of PMS.
Sitting across the table from her, I lost count after the first dozen yeast rolls and cheese muffins, and a white-blonde confection straight from a retro Betty Crocker cookbook, gleaming under the florescence like a '50s pin-up queen.
"Seven-minute frosting is something you don't see anyone make anymore," a fair volunteer told me.
"You don't see anyone make meringue, either," said a woman who has volunteered for the last 40 years.
These women quickly took me under their collective baking wings, the uninvited, the interloper, unaware of my extreme lust to win the coveted rainbow ribbon, Best of Show, for my own baked goods.
I've always had a competitive streak that hovers somewhere near clinical insanity. Memorize the times tables in fourth grade for a trip to an ice cream parlor for a free double-scoop? Done. Clip the most similes from magazines during a paper-cut-inducing-sixth-grade contest? I won. Report card? A's. The cutest, and most worthless, boyfriends? I've desired and won them all. Then I got older, but the beast still smoldered inside. And she was resurrected when I flipped through my first fair premium book three years ago.
I had no idea people even entered baked goods at the fair. Who bakes anymore? Come on. How pedestrian, how subservient can we get? But wait, maybe baking could become my hidden talent. A way to collect the kind of prizes good, obedient, crazy women like me stop getting when they graduate, marry and grow up.
My first year, I entered three categories and placed in two, a 2nd place in chocolate chip cookies and a 3rd in snickerdoodles. I was hooked. It was on. Last year, as all competitors do, I found my rival, Francie Freemont (name changed to protect the sane). Francie won 20 out of 25 entries, mostly the yearned-for 1st place Blues. I knew this because I crawled on hands and knees in front of the glass case where the fair volunteers arrange the ribbon winners for all fairgoers to see. I wore a short skirt that ruffled in the breeze while a particularly strong standing fan exposed my underwear to disturbed onlookers. I didn't care. The beast was back.
I asked assistant fair superintendent Jaime Wilson how one woman could bake so many things the weekend before a Monday judging. More than wanting to learn how a first-place ribbon comes down to eye appeal, smell and taste, or why judges don't have to award first place at all - if they deem the entries unworthy of such distinction - I wanted to kick Francie Freemont's baking ass. Jaime, amiable yet serious, explained how some entrants bake and freeze their entries year-round. She also told me the fair premium book, where potential entrants pick categories from cheesecake to lollipops, is virtually unchanged in 30 years.
But haven't we, as women, changed? What value do any of us really place in what the ancients referred to as "home economics?" Sure, some men enter the fair - and stories abound of champion bread makers among them - but women dominate the categories, the volunteering and the judging. During the judging, Linda Scott explained to me the complexity of a baking powder biscuit. Jaime Wilson had already lamented the end of baking as an art.
"So many people go out these days," she said, "they don't even think about making biscuits."
My immediate thought had nothing to do with dining out. I don't know if I've ever eaten a baking powder biscuit, homemade or not. Does that say more about me, or them? Either way, a generational chasm sat between us. During a pulled pork sandwich lunch, longtime volunteers expressed their devotion to both Jesus and Sarah Palin to me, an Obama-loving, non-practicing Catholic. I went along with it, as friendly competitors and "good" women do.
I wasn't there to judge anyone, or anything, but myself against other bakers. According to the "Judging Home Preserved Foods" pamphlet, the Deschutes County Fair uses the American System of Judging, which states, "exhibits in system are compared against a standard of perfection."
Compared against a standard of perfection? Aren't we getting a little sick of that? Something in me wants to see baking as a lost art rather than a science. I wanted to be proud of my cookie-making prowess (I did come away with a ribbon in each of eight categories I entered). But mostly I wanted to topple Francie Freemont and be named Best of Show.
The judging is anonymous. Superintendent Sarah Pierce even instructed me to be cool when my entries came up for consideration. And not shout, "Pick the French macaroon. (It's so obviously the best of the best.)"
I've tried to replicate the cookie 20 times since a trip to Paris, and I finally got it! It really was perfection, two raspberry-flavored cookies, pink as a sunset, hugging a strawberry buttercream... and it lost to some non-delicate looking morsel that I wanted to throw on the ground and stomp to pieces.
But I had promised. I stayed calm. I fought back the urge to turn into Annie Wilkes from Stephen King's Misery. When my banana bread finally took the stage next to Francie's bread, I held my breath and welded my poker face while the shoot-out music from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly tapped a light staccato inside my head. With nine loaves in the running and judge Linda bemoaning, "this is too hard, I waited for it... and... yes... finally, a winner! Take that, be-yatch.
I mean, it's a pleasure just entering. And maybe it really is. Somewhere between measuring baking powder and mixing batter, I kind of enjoyed myself. I kind of wanted the fair volunteers to teach me the secret to a perfect biscuit. And maybe they can learn to love my anti-gun, semi-vegetarian, liberal self. Then I can really topple Francie Freemont's reign. I can just see it next year: The Best of Show ribbon pulsating in my hand as I plan what to enter the year after that to win my second Best of Show. And the year after that. And the year after that...