Saturday, August 28, 2010

Nobody Makes a Cake as Tasty

It's been a cake sort of week. Started with a big cake for a funeral luncheon, mid-week I was experimenting with red-velvet cake recipes for an upcoming event, and I wrapped it up with this morning's indulgence in a nostalgic snack cake, procured from a recently discovered source. (Tastycakes are a regional delicacy where I grew up but are not widely available outside of the Philadelphia area.)

The funeral cake was supposed to be a slam dunk but ended up "giving me fits," as my neighbors would say. Late last week a member of our church passed away; my Circle was at bat for the funeral luncheon on Sunday, so I spent Saturday making a large sheet cake as my contribution. Nothing I haven't made before, but as I had been asked this time, the pressure was on, and OF COURSE things did not go smoothly, requiring 11th hour -- literally, as in I finished frosting the repaired cake at 11:45 -- alterations.

Pride was on the line, as well as respect for the deceased. I was pleased as punch that I had been asked (ordinary Request, not a Special Request, see below for the distinction), and eager for the chance to improve my place in the rankings. The whole experience led me to pondering the intricacies Public Cooking as a competitive sport.

Public Cooking is nearly synonymous with Church Cooking, at least around here. There are very few secular events other than the occasional company picnic, office party, or PTA gathering, mostly in the Level 2 category of difficulty. The religious connection invests it with overtones of social service, of Mission, if you will; one reason why amateur status is a matter of pride. It is distinct from catering, which is a professional endeavor. Though it's not unheard of for a Public Cooking star to cross over, the true believers' reward is honor and glory, unstained by filthy lucre.

P.C. is also quite distinct from Competitive Barbecue, which is a loud testosterone-driven crowd-pleaser but the object of secret derision amongst Public Cooking competitors. "Entrees:Meat" is considered one of the least interesting categories, (although purists point out that it is rarely well-done, even by seasoned competitors) and making the physical act of cooking part of the presentation is well, vulgar.

So here it is, my Competitive Public Cooking Primer.

Level 1: Ordinary Potluck dinners. The openest of Open events. A mix of mere Entrants (obligation-driven or simple masochists) and actual Competitors. Mostly social, like a neighborhood 5k. A good way for beginners to get their feet wet-- work on their timing and presentation, tweak content, get some feedback from the judges. Alongside the storeboughts and instant-mix entries, scratch-cooking always shows to it's best advantage, which is a confidence-builder.

It's also the venue for ranked competitors to try out a new entry, or change course category (from, say, Side Dish:Vegetable to Entree:Meatless). Occasionally you get to witness a top seed signal intent for a run at dual-course standing.

On the social side, a good place for divorcees to troll for pity dates with deliberately pathetic cooking as bait.

*Some aficionados class kids birthday parties as Level 1, but I consider them semi-public at best. If your social circle is competitive and upwardly mobile, and has a significant one-upmanship component, then do class them as Level 1.

Dos and Don'ts for Level 1 Beginners:
1) DO make your first few offerings in anonymous serving dishes -- either disposable, or something like the ubiquitous pyrex 13x9. Deniability is important. Judges have long memories. Even pros use disposables if they're too tired to do their best and just want to fulfill the social obligation without working too hard.

2) DON'T debut with an exotic ethnic dish if you're new to the community, even if it's superb. Try it out at private venues, to gauge the community palate. If you garner a Request you can leapfrog to Level 2 events.

3.) DO cultivate Insiders and longstanding Judges as taste-testers. The feedback is valuable, and the flattery will bank some goodwill points. It might also generate some buzz if you're campaigning for a Special Request.[See Level 2:Special Potluck Dinner, below].

4.) DON'T debut with your version of a regional specialty, if you are an Outsider of any sort. It will be interpreted not as homage but as hubris of the worst kind. After a suitable length of time, you'll be able to finesse it as long as you attribute the recipe to a credible authority, like an old Junior League cookbook, or a distant relative who was an Insider. CAUTION: before you undertake such attribution be very sure about the credibility of your chosen authority. For instance, in many regions celebrity chefs have no credibility with Public Cooking consumer/judges.

5.) DO bank goodwill points. Always be gracious, flatter whenever possible, deflect credit to someone else somehow, and above all, ask for other Competitors' recipes, even if you secretly hate their entry or are allergic to the ingredients.

6.) DO consider underrepresented entries, such as Beverage or Bread. Recipes are easier, Judges are more lenient, and even storebought can win you praise.

Lastly, NEVER offer anything but glowing praise for any other entry. Even storeboughts. Even behind the entrant's back. Even to your most trusted friends, your therapist, or a cabdriver when vacationing on another continent. Every consumer is a potential Judge, and it WILL get back to them.
Once you've tried your wings, you're ready for

Level 2: Specialty Potluck
There are more secular events in this category than any other. As with Level 1, Specialty provides opportunities to rub elbows with stars, solicit advice, hone presentation etc. These events often draw greater attendance, so it's a chance to work out doubling or tripling your recipe. Specialties are the first opportunity to fulfill a Request, i.e. someone asks you to make your signature entry. If someone in charge asks you, then it's a Special Request, and automatically confers ranking. Subdivisions are:

2A Winter Holidays: It is possible (though still somewhat risky) to debut an exotic ethnic or regional dish here, in the ecumenical spirit of the season. Winter holidays are also excellent debut venues for Comfort Food entries, giving them polish in preparation for Condolence events. Some classify Easter as a Winter Holiday, but in the Southeast it's an event with a very narrowly defined menu, therefore public meals are reserved for Level 4 Competitors (see below) and Caterers.

2B Cocktail/Appetizer: affectionately known as "Finger Foods," this Specialty draws the risk-takers. Lots of room for creativity: judges will try anything if its bite-sized or fried, and are surprisingly open-minded. Some Competitors train exclusively for this event, but many view it as cross-training for their "big plate" entries. Receptions:Non-Wedding often appear in this category. CAUTION: In some regions there are "Heavy" and "Light" Appetizer divisions, so be sure to ask for clarification.

2C Picnics: Sometimes called "Summer Holidays." Very popular with family teams and doubles partners due to the BBQ connnection. If Barbecue were to be included in Public Cooking, it would be here; but in reality, a Picnic is a dual, or rather parallell, competition. Amusingly enough, BBQ competitors view Picnic PC as "side dishes," willfully ignoring the crowds continuously grazing the table and going back for third helpings of ambrosia salad. Picnics are not recommended for PC beginners because of food safety issues, unless you have trained extensively on the private/family level in this event.

*Tailgates are an up-and-coming subdivision of Picnics, but to my mind they are simply private/family venues conducted in public, like a kid's party held at a public park. Competitive, to be sure, but still a leisure activity and a training opportunity rather than a serious PC venue.
I consider lavish football tailgates and the droll champagne-and-caviar offerings of the steeplechase set theater, not Public Cooking.

Level 3: Hospitality Committee [Name varies regionally and denominationally]
Invitation only, for top seeds and rising ranks. Any event important enough to have an official command structure is an HC event. In some areas many Level 4 events are subsumed into this category, especially Funerals. Menu is usually dictated, so a Competitor is likely to be chosen based on past execution of the relevant entry. CAUTION: HC events are compulsories, not freestyles. There is no room for innovation: conformity with tradition and expectation is required. Often several Competitors will be asked to make the same dish, and they will confer to establish conformity of ingredients and presentation if these are not dictated by the organizers. Given such constraints, competition at this level is extremely subtle and technically challenging.

Condolence/Sympathy subdivision: these are small events that can fall into HC or Specialty. In private or semi-public events the level of competitiveness is subtle, and unsung. They often afford only the satisfaction of a Personal Best performance, and some points toward future Requests. Comfort Food dominates the entries.

Level 4: Life Passages
Christenings, Weddings, and Funerals. (a.k.a. Babies, Brides and Bones). There are some other special subdivisions, (e.g.Retirement Dinners, Sports Awards Banquets), but the Big 3 dominate. LP is the most idiosyncratic category. The competitiveness of any given event is dependent on so many variables that generalizations are difficult. Some are so small and relaxed that there is hardly any competitive merit, yet tensions can run so high at LP events that both Judges and Competitors become unpredictable, which makes this category very popular with spectators. So much so, in fact, that many families now opt for Caterers; as a result, the most demanding and prestigious division - Weddings - has almost died out as a PC event. CAUTION: beginners should not attempt a Level 4 event, no matter who asks. Even Caterers are cautious with LPs. It's popular with spectators because it's DANGEROUS. With so much emotional investment, the most minor mistakes are magnified, and things can get ugly very quickly.

Competitors, start your ovens; the dishtowel will drop in 5, 4, 3, 2......


  1. Only you would have all of this categorized and organized into separate events. Just saying. For me, there is a separate set of rules. I figure if I make something truly spectacular, I might be asked to make it again. Therefore, I never ever make really great stuff for public events. Cooking is one of those things that I must want to do in order to actually do it. I make food for my family and that is pretty much where it stops unless the mood strikes me. Then, I usually go get a really good cup of coffee, take a minute . . . let it pass.

  2. I actually had that in the first draft, but the thing was getting WAY too long. I've used this tactic in the past, but since I've become Church Lady, I can't look back. Fortunately being wildly inconsistent in quality of my endeavors has the same effect.

  3. This is an awesome post. Fascinating and TOTALLY INTIMIDATING to me.

    --Strictly a spectator

  4. You need to submit this somewhere. It's awesome.

  5. Rae -- Thank You! PS should I include something about legendary disasters and career-ending injuries?