They came in by Tupperware — each entry’s recipe, sometimes typed, but most handwritten on lined notebook paper — folded over and taped to the lid. They came in fluted, disposable quiche pans, tin-foiled on the top to hold in the heat. They came in heirloom porcelain, in dishes handed down; they came in glazed earthenware, and they filled the long table that was set up in the Education Building at the North Carolina State Fair, first a dozen, then two dozen, the quiches just kept coming, and we — the food judges — wondered how in the world we were going to eat all those quiches.
For the past eight years, I’ve been a judge in the North Carolina State Fair Special Cooking Contests, a competition that highlights North Carolina commodities, like eggs, pecans, pork, and sweet potatoes, and gives our state’s home cooks a chance to claim a cash prize and, more important, a coveted blue ribbon.
There are rules.
Judges aren’t allowed to see the name or hometown of the entrant, but we are required to read the recipe thoroughly, to ensure the cook fulfilled the ingredient requirements. (That quiche contest, for instance, required a minimum of four eggs, but the more, the better.) We judge for taste, creativity, ease of preparation, presentation. We take it seriously.
Among us, there’s an unspoken gold standard of measurement. What makes, to our individual tastes, anyway, a winning pecan pie, a famous apple cake, a plate of perfectly smoked barbecue?
One year, there were pound cakes — cakes with crusts the color of goldenrod, cakes with tender, ivory crumb — and in those entries, I could see the pound cake that I once knew, that vanilla-hued creation of sweetness and light that perfectly complemented the antique lace of my grandmother’s old folded tablecloth, the one she always brought out for the holidays. I remembered how that cake got toasted for breakfast and spooned over with strawberry sauce that had been jarred back in the spring; a cake that was made with flour, eggs, and sugar, sure, but also with warmth, with kindness, with tenderness, with simplicity, with humility, with love.
And each year, with a new procession of dishes, of hopeful contenders — the shrimp and grits, the sugar cookies, the sweet potato casseroles, the chicken pies — I feel immediately at home, taken back to all the tables I once knew, appreciative of so many hands that cooked meals, mixed doughs, stirred stews, and I hope that you’ve had cooks like this in your life, too. Because if you have, then you know what I know: that we’re the ones who won the prize.
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