And all through the kitchen
The ovens were blazin’
The bakers were bitchin’
“I think what I may have is heat stroke,” I said
“I can’t tell the berries, the blue from the red.
Plus apple and rhubarb, to go with strawberry
Hey- Who took this order? It says Rainier Cherry!
I said ‘no’ to plum, I said ‘no’ to peach,
Why is it I’m here and not bound for the beach?”
Because I agreed in a moment of haste
To judge Friday’s contest of everything baked.
I will be the first to admit that I choose to toil in a kitchen because I prefer a warm work environment to a chilly one. And yet, there is something about July in New Jersey that changes everything. July in the bakery gives new meaning to the phrase, room temperature butter. It simply means, melted butter.
Beneath our bandanas, we drip, drip, drip, cheeks flushed crimson from the heat. I remind myself there are many vocations far warmer than that of a summah-time baker. Roofers, for example; Philadelphia Zoo workers, boiler room and steam tunnel personnel. The fact that I have access to unlimited iced coffee makes my job a veritable cakewalk. Coupled with the fact that I am following the OSHA Guidelines of using the buddy system. “By the way," I mentioned to a co-worker yesterday, pulling my head out of the convection oven. “I’m feeling just a touch warm. Might we turn on the fan?” Looking up from a puddle of chocolate buttercream, co-worker replied, “The fan is on.” “Right. Of course it is.” Just knowing this makes me practically chilly… I re-set the oven timer and dream of snow angels. Maybe it’s not a dream, maybe I’m hallucinating from the heat.
Feeling as fried as an organic egg on cast iron, I exit the bakery just as a late afternoon thunderstorm pops up. Not a gentle summer rain, more of a standing-in-a-carwash sort of rain. I dash to my black car which has been baking all day in the sun, windows firmly shut. The dashboard thermometer greets me, announcing a balmy 97 degrees outside. No buddy system here; in my sweltering solitude, I crack the windows figuring if I succumb to heat delirium, I can wave my drenched pink bandana out of the window.
Pulling into the driveway, giddy with the prospect of being footloose for an entire holiday, it suddenly dawns on me. I have promised to participate in the 4th of July township festivities. No, not the decorated Push/Pedal/Pull parade, nor the Ice Cream Eating contest, nor the noon Karaoke gala. I have been asked to be a judge at the Baking Contest. And this contest is something with which I am all too familiar.
I was a participant in the Baking Contest two years ago, the very first summer of my return to NJ. Little did I know that the folks in town were quite serious about the pastry competition. I threw my apron into the ring, entering with a seasonal Peach and Raspberry pie. The following is a true recap of that infamous, sweltering day.
A co-worker suggested I get to know the neighborhood by entering the contest. “It will be fun!” she assured me. Entries were to be dropped off at 9:00 am at the Georgian Revival style Municipal Building, an impressive structure smack in the center of Mayberry, I mean town. The air was thick with humidity, powdered sugar frosting, and red dye number two. Depositing my lattice-topped pie on the banquet table, I filled out the necessary paperwork and departed. The folks in charge reminded me to be back by high noon for the results. “Sure thing, wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
As the clock struck noon, we re-assembled on the front steps of Town Hall to learn our fate. More out of curiosity than competition, I returned accompanied by a support team of two. The lead judge announced the winners by category; cake, pastry, bread, cookie/bar, presentation and pie. Competition was stiff; bakers of all ages and abilities gathered around, elbow to elbow. New in town and more of an observer, I secured a spot away from the Doric colonnade, down the steps, where the acoustics were less than stellar. Wild applause, pats on the back, cheers, and general merriment greeted the winners. At long last the pie category was announced.
“In 3rd place,” the microphone echoed, “Ms. So and So for her famous Such and Such Triple Decker Red, White and Blue Surprise Pie.” Ms. So and So was not terribly surprised. She tore up the steps, grabbed her ribbon and I’m pretty certain was signing autographs on the way back down. “In 2ndplace… for the most creative use of Apples in an Apple Pie… Mrs. Smith.” Practically deafening, thunderous applause erupted as Mrs. Smith ascended the staircase, while Mr. Smith chatted up reporters from TMZ. I had seen enough. “Let’s go, ” I whispered to my cohorts. “And the winner of this year’s contest for 1st Place Pie goes to…” There was a crackle over the loudspeaker. We couldn’t quite make out the name. There was absolute silence. No applause, no “Whoo Hoo,” no nothin’. The name was announced once again. You could hear a rolling pin drop. My loyal compatriot, Blondilocks, burst out, “Hey! That’s YOU!” I tentatively nudged my way through the maddening crowd, up the limestone steps to collect my ribbon. All you could hear was deafening silence. And then, the ever so subtle applause of two individuals in the distance on the open lawn. Clap, pause, pause, clap.
On Friday the 4th of this July, I will fulfill my Baking Contest responsibilities to the best of my ability. Letting my taste buds be my guide, I will render a fair and honest decision. The following day, I shall return to the tropics of my commercial workplace. Because as we like to say, If You Can’t Stand the Wheat, Get Out of the Kitchen.
Please, don't judge me.