I joined a 4-H cooking club in fourth grade so I could make stuff and eat it.
Then, Mom decided I should make stuff and talk about it.
She convinced me to prepare a food demonstration for our local fair and suggested I make cheese sauce.
First, I’d have to learn to cook and talk at the same time.
I researched, wrote and memorized a script extolling the virtues of dairy products, explaining the recipe and suggesting foods the delectable sauce could enhance.
I planned to ladle it on macaroni, green beans and poached eggs for my grand finale. These plated-in-advance foods were rubbery by the time the sauce hit them, but my script declared that they looked scrumptious.
Next, I practiced talking and cooking until my hands and mouth meshed. Finally, I packed tools and ingredients, polished the electric hotplate, and printed the recipe on poster board. I was ready.
I breezed through the local fair, my only competition being Billy Jo Simmons from Benjamin. Struck dumb by stage fright, she scooped out watermelon balls in grim silence. Then, still in a soundless trance, she used toothpicks to build melon-ball animals for festive party favors.
Her horse lost a leg and the bag fell off her heifer. I was a shoo-in.
For the county competition, Mom made me a ruffled apron and trimmed my bangs. In mid-August, I stood before too many people and began:
“Hi, my name is Janet Bray and I’m a member of the Nifty Nine 4-H Club. Today, I will prepare a mouth-watering cheese sauce, packed with nutrients to build strong bodies.”
I measured and mixed. I smiled. I remembered every move and every word. I flourished my whisk and chuckled.
Then, as I announced the sauce would soon boil, I realized the hotplate had quit heating some time ago.
Instead of “rich bubbles popping merrily,” I stirred a freakish lump of flour and butter in lukewarm milk, adorned with shreds of unmelted cheese.
I decided to beat the blob into submission. I stirred faster, my arms whirling like blades on a helicopter. I began to sweat. Adopting my father’s problem-solving approach, I muttered, “Hell! What’ll I do with the damn stuff?”
I raised the whisk overhead and plunged it into the pot, attempting to mash the mixture smooth. Globs of milk and congealed flour splattered my apron and gummed my hair.
In desperation, I smacked the hotplate, sending it sliding into the fossilized eggs. They bounced on the floor like tennis balls.
I wiped sweat, milk and flour from my eyes with the back of my arm and stared in bug-eyed panic at my mother. She slowly slashed her index finger across her throat — twice.
My eyes widened in disbelief: “She’s got to be kidding. Why should I kill myself over cheese sauce?”
So I continued: “I’ll now pour the rich, creamy sauce into the serving dish, so you can appreciate its smooth texture.”
Thin milk sloshed into the bowl, followed by the resounding thump of the remaining coagulated ingredients. A tidal wave of uncooked sauce took out the first row of spectators.
“My, doesn’t that look delicious! Notice how the golden, velvety sauce contrasts with these green beans (splat), brightens this macaroni (thwack), and should accentuate the poached eggs — that seem to have gone missing.
The judges commended my courage and wished me better luck next year.
When Mom stopped laughing, she rubbed a glob of flour paste off my nose, and assured me I didn’t have to kill myself. Her gesture meant I should explain my problem and stop.
I obliged. I stopped talking for some time, sitting stonily in the car as Mom giggled and snorted, making no attempt to disguise her merriment.
But by the next day and for many years to come, my mother and I hooted with laughter whenever one of us dramatically declared, “My, doesn’t that look delicious!”
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