There are certain activities within our childhood that define us, shape us, mold us into who we are today. Being a mom, I am a careful observer of the things that go on in my kids lives that I am certain will define them as they grow into young adulthood. I have to admit, it’s exciting to know what they are doing today is shaping who they will be thirty years down the road.
So I ask myself, What defined me when I was their age?
When I was in fourth grade our neighbor, Mrs. Wolf, started a 4-H group with her daughter and several of her friends. I was fortunate enough to be a part of that club, The Cheese Stretchers 4-H Club (don’t judge us, we were 10 years old). The first few years we were a packed house of eager young ladies excited to learn everything we could about sewing and cooking. But then, the surging cloud of puberty driven disinterest descended upon our group and by the time middle school had ended the carnage was epic, save five young ladies, who from that moment became the Fab 5 of Josephine County. We dominated the county fair scene. If only the in-your-face battle cry Boo-Ya had been around back then…oh the enemies we would have made.
Erica, Theresa, Gail, Marcy, and me. We all had our specialties we excelled in. Perky and cute Marcy rocked the Style Review runway modeling her latest handmade prairie revival Gunne Sax dress and edgy extra wide wide brimmed hat. BOO-YA! Fine detailed Gail mastered her sewing to a perfection. BOO-YA! (Note the picture above, I am proud of my blue ribbon but Gail’s sewn pantsuit to the right won the whole enchilada. The Grand Champion. The Reserve Champion. On to state fair. I’m also going to add, right here, right now, that I wore that homemade dress to my first dance in 7th grade…with clogs. I still remember looking down at it’s puffed strawberry print sleeves glowing in the black lights as I lock-elbowed-danced my very first slow dance to Stairway to Heaven in the North Junior High gym…sigh) Anyway, back to the girls. Theresa and Erica were technical, the real brains of the operation. Every competition was approached with a tactical plan that typically made the competition shake in their pot holders. BOO-YA! And me, I was the fine arts and baking specialist as well as the comedy relief. I was the if-anything-that-can-go- wrong-will-go-wrong team member who had to learn to laugh at her mistakes or else become a mental midget in the process. BOO-YA!
Lets see, some of my more notorious errors…I forgot to put the lid on the blender when practicing a demonstration on how to make blackberry fruit leather in our dining room. The following week I learned how to wallpaper…. the dining room…and never forgot to put the lid on the blender again.
In a cooking competition where I was partnered with Gail and had to make a complete breakfast meal in under 90 minutes I hurriedly pulled breakfast sausages that were cooking in a muffin tin out of the oven and in my haste threw the entire pan of sausages across the floor. You can distract a judge when one muffin falls on the floor, applying the five second rule, but you cannot find enough distractions to sway the critical eye of a judge away when scampering across the floor trying to locate twelve sausage muffins in five seconds or less.
And probably my most infamous error of all time was when I was competing in Salem at the Oregon State Fair in a cooking competition. I had won at the local level with my chicken pot pies baked into a clay flower pot. If you aren’t familiar with 4-H cooking competitions, the basic premise is you are dropped into an unfamiliar kitchen with a large glass window for all state fair goers to stop and view. In short, you are a curiosity to some and a disappointment to others who anticipate something really exciting going on on the other side of the pane. Either that or they expect to see a giant pig nursing 20 piglets.
So, there I was, cruising along, rolling my dough, adding flour to my broth, and filling my clay flower pots. It was an epic exhibition of time management. The oven, although unfamiliar, did not concern me in the least. Gently I placed my clay pots filled with spoonful of comfort food heaven and topped with a buttery layer of flaky divinity into the oven, closed the door, pull the lever, and brushed my hands together in a satisfied sweep. I don’t know why, but something told me to turn around and check the oven. When I did, I noticed a new light was glowing next to the timer. The “DOOR LOCKED OVEN IN CLEANING CYCLE” light. Now, if you are unfamiliar with ovens that have a cleaning cycle, once the lock is engaged you cannot unlock it until the cycle is done. And the cycle isn’t done until the oven reaches and sustains a temperature of 900 degrees for an extended period of time. My chicken pot pies were going to be cremated unless I acted fast.
Long story short…I stood paralyzed in the unfamiliar kitchen for a minute weighing my options…if they incinerate and caused a fire that in turn would force an evacuation of the building I might get my name in the paper, and as a 14 year old kid, that would be pretty cool OR I could concede defeat and do the right thing and unplug the oven. I threw my hands up in the air, probably muttered the words, “What the hell”, pulled the oven away from the wall and unplugged it. I turned and meekly waved for the judge to come inside my kitchen so I could speak with her privately. Once inside I explained my situation. I remember her gently patting my shoulder and then brushing off some flour dust as her hand lifted away from my apron strap.
Soon my kitchen was filled with maintenance men standing over the unplugged oven, trying to figure out how they would get those pot pies out of a locked oven. I wasn’t allowed to leave Kitchen #1, so I quietly began cleaning the counter with a damp sponge, timidly sweeping lazy circles around the same eight inch radius, leaving the rest of the counter to be covered with a fine layer of flour, as I watched my state fair dreams literally go up in smoke.
An increasingly larger crowd of people gathered on the other side of the pane, curious to what all the buzz was about in Kitchen #1. Trapped in the kitchen, I was a bad reality show going down, twenty years before the rest of the world knew what a reality show was. My mom sat among the crowd, every now and then I would lock eyes with her, roll eyes with her, shrug shoulders with her, and smile with her.
In the end my pies were rescued, but by then it was too late for any chance of winning a blue ribbon. They had already been jostled, jolted, and jumbled from their pre-cleaning cycle perfection. I was okay with that though, because I’m sure somewhere during that time I was told by Mrs. Wolf that this type of stuff is character building.
I look back at those 4-H days. At my successes and my not so great moments. And I have to say, Mrs. Wolf was right about that whole character building stuff. I have ribbons to mark my successes but they have long been put away in boxes that are somewhere in my attic. However, I have genuine endearing memories of moments I had to dig deep to rise above that are at the very very tip of my soul. It is those moments I refer to when my kids are being challenged and life isn’t giving them the big ol’ 32oz Big Gulp of lemonade they thought they deserved.
Failure. Believe it or not it’s okay not to get a ribbon or a trophy. I learned that from Mrs. Wolf and 4-H. I HAVE failed in my life at times. And it really is ok.