At the Polk County Fair last week, they held a chocolate dessert contest. Drawn in by the line, "Maybe you can get a column out of it!" I agreed to judge.
My two fellow judges came with sterling credentials. One holds a stack of home economics degrees. The second is a cookbook editor and taste-tester for General Mills.
And me? I have no qualifications whatsoever. Apparently the columnist was there to break a possible tie. Utterly ignorant of baking, I arrived early to find out what I was supposed to do.
We were to use a complex weighted point system, which forced us to score each dessert on appearance, taste, texture, moisture, serving size appropriateness and creativity.
I entered the contest with several biases. I don't like brownies. They're just too rich. I've never finished one yet. The last two-thirds usually ends up in the hedge south of the church.
Second, I don't like silly decorations. Just give me the cake, please. Don't turn it green for Christmas or orange for Halloween or green for St. Patrick's Day. Just keep it normal!
With those biases on the table, my fellow judges and I started the grim business of judging the appearance of the desserts. We worked quietly and alone.
Some people dolled the desserts up, some people used frosting, some let the cake be natural, some decorated, some left it plain.
The heat and humidity unfairly caused the glaze on some cakes to run. I snottily wrote that they should have thought of that ahead of time and not used glaze. Harrumph. I was catching on to this business of judging.
My criteria for appearance was as follows: If these 21 desserts were sitting on the dessert table in the church basement after a funeral, which one would I take and why?
Several desserts were eliminated because the appearance gave no clue what they would taste like. When I see a German chocolate cake with that wonderful coconut frosting, I know what I am getting. But a mystery dessert runs the risk of ending up in the hedge south of the church.
If the cake was cut into huge six-by-six squares, or if the frosting looked just plain too thick, I eliminated the cake as more possible fertilizer for the hedge south of the church.
After judging the appearance, the contest people carefully cut up the cakes into representative samples, taking care to include frosting, cake, and filling, if there was.
Ah, the tasting. Wonderful. For a while. The first 12 desserts got a fair tasting, but the next eight were all too rich -- and the final one made me gag, even though it was obviously one of the best. Too much chocolate!
Between bites, I sipped decaf coffee to cleanse the palette. I went down to half-bites, and finally barely rolled around the half-bite in my mouth before getting rid of it. There was no hedge, so I used a napkin. I was becoming ill.
But what fun. We judges began to converse. We hid in a back room and pointed. We tried not to laugh and giggle at any desserts in particular, but we were ruthless.
As the assistants tallied up our score sheets, I found my favorite in the youth division without thinking: I walked out and snuck a second bite of a wonderful cupcake just because it was so good.
When one of the other judges did the same thing with the same cupcake, we knew we had a winner. Forget the score sheets, the desire to sneak seconds won out.
In the adult division, we had a disagreement. Is brown sugar frosting supposed to be grainy or smooth? I argued that it should be grainy, the texture of fudge. Ms. Betty Crocker agreed, but Ms. Home Economics felt it should be smooth.
Grainy won two-to-one. Other cakes were better decorated, more original or more creative, but the layer cake with brown sugar frosting -- that was some wholesome old-time goodness.
The penalty for all that chocolate was severe. My stomach ached. Buzzed on sugar and caffeine, I stared bug-eyed at the ceiling until 3 a.m.
But the next morning when somebody offered me a piece of chocolate cake, did I turn away in disgust?
Nope. I took the one piece and later snuck a second.