When I arrive, long banquet tables are already gussied up for the holiday, groaning under the weight of the entries. Narrowly escaping a beheading by red, white, and blue helium balloons and curling ribbon, I cross the creaky wooden floor to where the other judges have assembled. New to this game, I need explicit instructions. The first directive is to fill out a peel and stick name tag and affix it to my shirt. I secure a proffered permanent marker and scrawl my name within the confines of the tag. Simultaneously, I am handed a stack of papers which are to serve as my note taking memoranda, a pen, paper napkins and a plastic fork. Tucking the note papers under my arm, I attempt to peel away the backing from my name tag. It will not budge. Clearly I have been handed a malfunctioning Hello-My-Name-Is. Concerned this might be some weird initiation for the newbie judge, I indicate that the tag will neither peel nor stick. "Where's your name tag?" one of the other judges queries. "I'm having a little trouble," I acknowledge sheepishly. “Well, you have to wear it. And this-" I'm handed a lime green ribbon indicating I'm a legit judge. Did I mention everyone else is attired head to toe in red, white and blue? It takes two volunteers to rectify my name tag crisis and I stick it on my hip pocket where it's both askew and illegible.
The woman in charge is equally cordial and no-nonsense. “Let’s get started!” she announces. We are reminded to pay attention to not only taste, but presentation. More importantly, we are admonished to hold on to our forks. We begin at, of all places, the pie table. I’m introduced as a ‘Professional’ which probably does not endear me to the other judges. Yet the Court nominates me as the knife wielding pie/cake/bar cookie slicer. I’m handed not one knife, but two, plus a pie server, and to cleanse my palate, a bottle of water. I still have a stack of papers tucked under my arm. Trying to organize myself, I set everything down on the plastic tablecloth but there’s no time. “Taste or appearance? 1st, 2nd, 3rd or Honorable Mention? Circle the appropriate box.” This is worse than the SAT. “Excuse me, where are we?”
“Thoughts on the Blueberry/Key Lime?” Judge in Red Polo/Denim Skirt inquires. I suggest it’s rather dramatic, the border of blue against a backdrop of key lime, garnished with freshly whipped cream. I’m asked to slice and distribute a few tastings which I do. My slices may be slim, but we’ve got miles to travel on this pastry trail. A co-judge in star-spangled capris comments, “There’s hardly anything on your fork!” Believe me there is, I assure her and we are now in a dead presentation heat, debating the Blueberry/Key Lime and a European style Torte. Let me pause for just a moment and express my utter frustration. First of all, the competing Linzer is indeed a Torte, but the judges are insisting it is aTart. It has no place competing on the pie table, and I’ve got to be honest, it’s a little heavy handed in the Odense almond paste. I’m the only one who thinks so as the other judges are bedazzled by the almond pastry constellation atop the raspberry jam. “Taste or presentation? 1st, 2nd, 3rd or Honorable Mention?” Ribbons are flying across the table and I continue slicing, keeping my head low. Needing a moment to reflect, I pause for a sip of water but the judges are already on to the next entry. We never finish clarifying torte from tart.
I carve up a few smidgens from a free form apple galette and offer it to the Honorable Ladies. It’s quite good, the taste bright with just a touch of lemon zest. There is a sense of urgency in the voice of Navy and White Seersuckered Judge to move on to the cake table, so I continue demonstrating my knife skills. Tidy slices are a challenge in many cases. One of the judges asks me what causes so much liquid to form in the pies. “As a Professional, what do you think?” Choosing my words most carefully, I try to be honest yet tactful. “Perhaps some of the pie bakers were a tad shy with their thickening agents and oven temperatures. Will you just look at that table full of cakes…”
The patriotic Dollar Store tablecloths stretch before us, each cake clamoring for attention. There is nothing subtle about the entries. The home bakers clearly took advantage of food colorings made available from the Rockets Red Glare collection. Swept up in the holiday spirit, I am most impressed with a towering flag cake. Alternating layers of red velvet and vanilla sponge sliced razor thin, culminate with a square of blue cake depicting a flag. I daren’t divulge the secret of the Wilton magic cake pan responsible for this flag artistry, but many hours in the kitchen are required to pull it off. No one seems to notice- they prefer the fondant attired Captain America cake. "You know," I start to say, “the crumb on the flag cake is very well done. It's moist. And look at how even the red and white layers are. All thirteen stripes! And did you notice the blue square indicating our flag was still there?" Captain America’s super hero fondant details are snagging the spotlight. Damn.
There's also a ginormous almond encrusted number. It's not only formidable in height and width, it's the only cake outfitted with a gold scalloped cake circle and heavily perfumed with almond extract. It makes me wonder if it came from the commercial bakery one town over. I'm skeptical. I have a vague recollection of seeing that cake in a movie once, and you can almost hear the faint strains of "Speak Softly, Love" as I attempt to cut a whisper of a slice. It's much too tall to accommodate the small knife I've been juggling. The other judges have moved on without me. I leave the cake scalpel embedded in the slivered almonds and hope no one gets hurt.
I'm way behind, my plastic fork momentarily naked. Fondant seems to be closing in on Ready-To-Spread and the judges are applauding a green leafy motif sprawled across a maple nutty entry. "It's good," I agree but I'm a little confused. Are we now debating frostings or cake or presentation? I look back to see the knife I abandoned in the side of the almond cake dangling precariously. If I were running this show, there would be strict adherence to cake height guidelines, the way they do it on the Food Network.
Now it's cookies and bars. I'm starting to feel a little queasy- I've got to take a pass on the caramel ripple cheesecake bars and the Flintstone sized whoopie pies with cookie dough filling. "I'm sure they're delicious" I lie. Pausing for a sip of water, I see we are nearing the end of the cookies. Two more to try, Classic chocolate chip and butterscotch kitchen sink. Perish the thought.
Taking a casual stroll around the Kids table, I spy a wiggle of red Twizzler that has capsized from its icing ship. It has rolled due south of its cardboard base and my attempt to place it back on the cake causes more destruction. I don’t know what to do with the confection so I discreetly pop it into my mouth. There’s a photographer capturing the excitement and she waves me over to a cake outfitted in tri-color July 4th fondant ribbons and skewered marshmallow firecrackers. “You know,” she whispers to me, “You can actually eat the ribbons. They’re made out of fun dent.” Still chewing the cherry licorice I nod and nod again. I'm thinking, you can, but I can't because I'm presently committed to this Twizzler. The next thing I know, there’s a team cordoning off the contest area with yellow crime scene tape to discourage interlopers. I’m panic-stricken that the almond cake knife may be responsible for a homicide, fingering me as the accomplice. No one seems terribly concerned. They are more intent on gathering together for a photograph.
“We can count on you for next year, can’t we?” Lead Judge asks me. Returning the unused paper goods and crumb coated utensils to the clean-up committee, I re-join the group for our portrait. You can’t miss me. I’m the one standing in the back row holding up my plastic fork with a bit of red Twizzler stuck between my teeth.