The story below is an excerpt from our July/August 2016 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, log in to read our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app. Thank you!
I love county fairs. I love livestock, neon lights, and I adore food on a stick, so a good county fair is heaven for me. Everyone tries to present the very best they have to offer. The porkiest pigs are shampooed until they are clean enough for church. Prize hens and roosters are groomed until they glow. Steers are buffed and their tails fluffed. All the animals look so pretty and picture-perfect that even the crankiest mule or most disinterested goat appears charming.
When I was in high school, the county fair competition provided a sure test of how true your love was. If your girlfriend spent her Saturday helping you wash down a steer’s butt and fluff its tail to cotton-candy perfection for the event, marry that girl. She’s a keeper.
Of course, the humans put their best foot forward as well. Glad-handing politicians try to look vote-worthy. Children try to ride all the rides and eat all the sweets. Vendors try to be irresistible to fair-goers and their money. Local cooks enter their tastiest dishes to snag bragging rights for the year.
Many years ago, there was a formidable blue ribbon gatekeeper. Standing between the cooks and culinary recognition was the legendary Miss Lucy. Miss Lucy was a 40-year veteran of the county-fair circuit. Her sense of smell and taste were impeccable. If you put Chef Gordon Ramsay’s professional palate against Miss Lucy’s, I do not think he’d stand a chance. She was that good.
I knew people who practiced for months before setting something before Miss Lucy for judgment. Jams, pickles, breads, pies and cake entries, all the culmination of weeks of refining recipes and techniques. Tons of work to be sure, but if you got a blue ribbon out of Miss Lucy or better yet, a rosette, you might as well write that into your obituary because it was going to stand as one of your life’s greatest achievements.
So coveted were these accolades, some people tried to trick their way into winning one. Fat chance. Miss Lucy threw one contestant’s angel food cake out of the competition, disqualified it altogether, and banned the woman from entering the cake class ever again.
Why? Because Miss Lucy’s finely-tuned nose had detected a whiff of cardboard in the crumb, indicating the cake was from a box mix. Cheater! Miss Lucy could tell if someone had been smoking in your kitchen while you mixed your cake batter, her nose was so good. You were never going to be able to slip something by her. No sir. Miss Lucy did not tolerate any tomfoolery. In her years as head judge, she’d seen all the clever cons and was having none of it.
In addition to judging entries herself, Miss Lucy trained junior judges how to properly evaluate the entries they’d be assigned. Her dedication to the highest standards were crystal clear in her instructions. The woman was a drill sergeant in sneakers. One rule was that judges had to conduct themselves as if the hopeful cook was watching, because frankly, they often were. Miss Lucy would not tolerate you discouraging a budding cook because you made a nasty face after tasting their effort.
No matter how disagreeable you find the taste of “Bread and Butter Pickles entry #12” that just landed on your tongue, you may not react badly. God forbid, you were never to spit it out. There’s cold lemon water to cleanse the palate between entries, so use it to choke down entry #12 if you must. You’ll learn to take smaller first bites next time. You’ll also learn that there will always be an entry #12, something so bad you’ll assume it’s been entered on a dare. Deal with it kindly. It could be a 10-year-old’s fledgling efforts, and you do not want to crush their love of cooking.
Miss Lucy ran the tightest of ships. She was strict, exacting, and tough as nails, but she understood that everyone is a beginner at some point. She encouraged the youngsters. She was imposing but she’d also make you want to do better next year when the county fair rolled around again. She motivated people to do their best. I appreciate that. Because when I was 10 years old, I was “Bread and Butter Pickles entry #12.”
They say that one of the greatest things you can do as an adult is be the kind of person you needed in your life when you were a child. One could do a whole lot worse than be Miss Lucy.