It's that time of year -- the silly season of too much food everywhere, especially in the office. Almost every company I've worked at throughout my career has had too much food in the office around the holidays. Vendors give gifts of chocolate, and nuts, and pastries, and popcorn. Long holiday departmental lunches are held. I've even worked places where some divisions held open houses for the rest of the company. Wisely, most companies have moved away from the days where these events involved alcohol. But food -- food is omnipresent between the week following Thanksgiving and New Years' Eve. No wonder we all think we need to begin diets in January!
One year, I was doing consulting work in a laboratory. Because of governmental regulations, food wasn't allowed in the lab building. Throughout the company's sprawling complex of offices, employees had many occasions for celebrating with food. The only exception was the lab workers, confined by the safety rules as their test animals were by their cages. I thought the solution that they came up with was ingenious. One day during the holiday season, a large conference room was reserved and people brought in food. But, it wasn't simply a throw anything you want into a dish and bring it to work type of an affair. No, that would not have been too much fun. Instead, the entire lab held a Bake-Off. Categories were devised, entry forms required, judges appointed, prizes to be awarded. On the appointed day, employees brought in examples of their best recipes while the management and those who only wanted to eat, not cook, provided luncheon meats, condiments, tableware and drinks. After the judging, everyone feasted on the food and spent time away from the lab bench with their colleagues. When I was issued an invitation (as I wasn't a regular employee) I looked forward to enjoying a nice afternoon with the people I had been working with closely for almost a year.
When one of my co-workers, Lisa, said she was going to bake pies, I joked that I would join her. At this time my culinary experience usually meant preparation that involved nothing more than opening a can, boiling a bag, or warming in a microwave. I wasn't even sure that my oven worked. I had admitted to the project leader that I thought the best recent food invention had been salad in a bag. Prior to that, if required to contribute something for a meal, I would dust off a beautiful cut-glass salad bowl that I inherited and then order 7 salads from the drive-up at Hardee's on my way to the party. Although I frequently ended up with scraps of lettuce in my car, nobody was the wiser for the origins of my salad. I was so clever! I had learned that, in most cases, presentation was very important in cuisine. I didn't need to know how to cook.
I shouldn't have joked about the pies because Lisa challenged me on my joke about joining her in making pies. I tried to exit gracefully by saying that I had never baked a real pie in my life. I had warmed or thawed some before. I was skilled at buying them at bakeries. But make one -- from scratch? No way! Lisa persisted. She coerced me into taking an afternoon off about 2 weeks before for a trial run. "Bring a recipe" she said, "and we'll stop at the store on the way to my house." So, one day, I dashed to the daycare to pick up my son, and then drove 40 miles in the other direction to meet Lisa at her house. I had emailed her my recipe and she had already done the shopping when I arrived.
"I don't know about this recipe", she said. "You've never made a pie before? This crust looks difficult for a beginner."
"You want me to make the crust too? Can't you buy those pre-fab?"
"If you're doing this", she said, "you're doing it the right way -- all the way. Besides rolling out a crust is easy."
"Rolling?" I thought. "What did she mean by that?" I looked at the picture in her cookbook and saw that she was making a lattice-top crust. It reminded me of sewing. I knew I was in trouble. The pre-baked crust and the can of Thank You brand pudding and pie filling looked very tempting -- and so much easier.
We set B. down with his toy cars and coloring books and we went to work. I soon found out I was working with someone who had grown up on a farm and had won 4-H baking contests at county fairs. She was also a chemist. Precision was her profession. There would be no shortcuts. There would be no omissions. Except for one: the recipe called for rum. A teetotaller, she didn't keep alcohol in her house.
"We can do this recipe without the rum. It will be just as good. Alcohol bakes off anyway, so I thought about buying some, but I didn't want to buy an entire bottle for such a small amount. We'll use extract instead."
Like I knew any better.
The afternoon proceeded. I measured liquids; I shifted flour; I cubed butter; I chopped pecans, all under the tutelage of an expert. I was instructed how to hold a knife, reprimanded for my lack of exactitude in measuring, reminded how to convert from metric to common units. Lisa was a tough teacher and a bit astonished by my lack of kitchen knowledge.
"Didn't you take Home Ec in school?" she asked incredulously.
I nodded. "I did better in the sewing portion", I said, aware that she was also an accomplished seamstress. "I sewed the dress I was wearing to the dress I was making. Most days I ended up wearing my pin cushion to my next class. I think they let me pass because I was in Honor Society."
She didn't believe me. Hours later, her kitchen covered with flour and spice, I think she understood. But, in the end, I had a pecan-cranberry pie with a crust that the recipe claimed was the secret ingredient. I did a road-test with the pie with my parents and brother as taste-testers. At first they were skeptical, not only because of my baking history (there is a family legend about man-made shale brownies....) but also because I dared to mess with Pecan Pie by adding cranberries. But, surprisingly, we all liked the pie. I was inspired. Maybe I could do that Bake-Off.
The week of the contest I was still unsure about my participation. Salads were welcomed -- "How else would we feed the vegetarians?" I was told by someone who didn't realize that I was not a carnivore -- but there would be no prize. By now, the story of my pie-adventure afternoon at Lisa's had spread throughout our project team. In addition to her other skills, she was a good story-teller and had embellished my trials in the kitchen. I had no choice -- I had to enter the competition. But, there were two problems.
Problem one: nobody told me that this wasn't a friendly contest. It was in its fifth year and people took it SERIOUSLY. It was cut-throat. In all categories.
Except one: Pies.
Problem two: Only one person entered the pie category in previous years. Joe's wife was a semi-professional baker. She made wedding cakes. She made candy. She made PIES! Delicious, beautiful pies. Joe was the only person allowed to enter the contest with food he didn't make. It was the only way they could taste his wife's wonderful pies. Since Lisa had worked there less than a year as well, she wasn't aware of that nobody ever thought to challenge in the Pie category.
The night before the competition, I decided that if I were to do this, I would go all out. I would add the rum. I went to the grocery store and bought all of the ingredients. I didn't realize that you couldn't buy hard liquor at the grocery, so I had to make a trip to a package store. I drank so infrequently that I wasn't even sure where to go. On walking in the door, I was stopped. I had forgotten that you could not bring a child into the store. B. had to stand in the doorway while I bought the rum.
"I want the smallest, cheapest bottle of rum you have", I told the cashier, thinking that they might sell something the size of an airplane booze bottle.
"Do you want it in a brown paper bag, too?, he asked.
"No....Yes....Yes. In a bag. I just need some for a recipe." I don't think he believed me. I could imagine what he was thinking: What kind of woman brings her 5 year old into a liquor store at 9:30 at night to buy cheap rum? I paid for my illicit and not very small bottle of booze and got out of the store quickly.
Back home, I put B to bed, took care of the dinner dishes, and began to bake my pie -- at 10:30PM. By midnight, I was ready to put it in the oven.
I set the timer and sat down to watch TV. Soon, I fell asleep. When the buzzer sounded, I wasn't sure where I was or what the sound was. It took me a few seconds to realize. The pies! I rushed to the oven to claim my masterpiece.
What a mess! The extra liquid of the rum caused the pie filling to overflow the pan as it cooked. My oven must not have been the same temperature as Lisa's, or the rum changed the consistency because it looked a little too well done, some of the pecans on the surface showing the first few seconds of burning. Or maybe I had been asleep for a while before hearing the timer buzz.
I set the pie on the counter to cool and went to bed, disappointed. There would be no competition for me the following day.
In the morning, just as I was headed out the door, I had a change of heart. So what if it doesn't look pretty, I thought. I knew that I wouldn't feel right participating in the meal if I hadn't brought something to eat. Those who were not cooking had already contributed to a fund for extras, like bread and rolls. Maybe I won't have to put my name on it, I thought.
I arrived at the conference room, my sloppy-looking pie in hand. I took it out of the grocery sack and tea towel wrapping. I felt a little conspicuous not having color-coordinated food transports like some of the women. I knew I looked like an amateur. I couldn't fool anybody. I wasn't a cook.
"You ....you made a pie?", one of the women said. "Joe's wife always makes the pies. Nobody wants to eat other pies."
I looked to the end of the table. There was Joe and his wife unloading bakery-perfect pies. Banana cream. Apple. Cherry. French Silk. They sat on lace doilies atop pie stands. She had little place cards with the kind of pie identified. Maybe they read: Perfect, Beautiful, Worth the Calories, Melt in Your Mouth Delicious. I don't know. To save me from my disgrace, I wanted the floor to open up and swallow me. And my unworthy pie. It was too late to withdraw. I departed in embarrassment, leaving my laughable, forlorn pretender pie.
Lunch time neared. I lost track of time, involved in the problem du jour. At 11:45, my boss Gloria and Lisa show up at my desk. Judgement Day.
We went to the conference room. The line to eat started at the door and snaked down the hallway. We were late, but the feeding line hadn't started yet. "They're still judging", someone down the hallway grumbled.
Finally, the competition coordinator opened the door, announced that prizes would not be awarded until 2pm, and let people in the room. By the time I got to the dessert table, I was surprised that there was nothing left of my pie. "Someone must like Pecan Pie", I told Lisa, "because nobody would try it based on its looks".
"Too bad I didn't get a chance to taste it", she replied. "I'm sure it was good", she said, trying to encourage me, as if I had a pie baking future ahead of me. I went back to my desk after lunch and thought nothing about more about it.
Around 2:30, I look up from my computer because I heard some commotion at the other end of the office.
"What?" Gloria squealed. "The Salad-In-A-Bag Lady won?"
"That's right," said Lisa. " The delay in the judging was because they wanted to finish the pie. The delay in the announcement of winners was because they created a new category for Joe's pies -- Best Looking Pie".
Lisa walked over to my desk and handed me a large Blue ribbon with calligraphied wording: "Best QC LAB Pie 1993", and a framed certificate.
"You forgot to name your pie," she said, pointing to the blank on the certificate.
"Cam's Award-Winning Holiday Cranberry-Pecan Rum Pie" I said.
That little bottle of rum made about 1o more pies over the next few years. The pies were prettier as I improved my skills, but I'm sure that none of them tasted as good as that first victorious pie.