Summer Contests!

Winners announced for our Food Writing and Art Contest!

The lucky winners will also be published in a collection we’re calling “We are What We Eat – Food, Community & Identity,” which will be available in early August at Skidompha Library.

The Artists

First Place: Debra L. Arter
Freshly Cut Slice of Blueberry Pie, cut tyvek and paper, 16″ x 22″

Food Art Finalist: Phyllis Guss
Cupcakes, oil on canvas, 8″ x 8″

Food Art Finalist: Jean Kigel
4th of July, Watercolor, 23″ x 30″

Food Art Finalist: Debra L. Arter
The Book of Bacon, Monotype of Bacon Package, 22″ x 30″

Food Art Finalist: Diane Spofford Randlett
The Pie, oil on canvas

The Writers

First Place: Mallory Conn – “Spuds”

When the cold of autumn sneaks into New England was when my parents liked to take us
camping. We had a pop-up camper smelling of mothballs, full of artifacts from a decade of travel during my parents’ marriage before I was born. On those nights, my dad would put a grill over the fire for steaks and what we call “Campfire Mashies,” or, baked potatoes in foil. The post-fire prep involved smashing the innards with a fork and adding huge dollops of butter, with salt and pepper to taste. The hidden alchemy of food eaten outside intensified their flavor on those dark, chilly nights as we listened to my parents speak fondly of trips they had taken.
My first adventure as an adult that I planned and paid for myself was a trip to Ireland. I flitted through the usual Dublin sights, including a hard Saturday night out. The next morning I wandered, hungover and proud of myself, until I came across a small restaurant: The Humble Spud. They’d reimagined the St Patrick’s Day meal into something appetizing, not obligatory. Scallion cream sauce to improve boiled carrots, a slow-cooked corned beef drowned in cider to keep it moist, but the same mashed potatoes from my childhood. I took careful notes and later bribed my sister into cooking for a St Patrick’s Day dinner party I threw in my apartment, feeling tentatively like a grown up.

On holidays that involve Jesus, my mother—now retired from family chef duties—trots out her Praties de Résistance: Twice-Baked Potatoes. The deviled eggs of potatoes, their baked insides are mixed with cheese and herbs, then spooned back into the skins for a second round in the oven. The top crisps into crunchy swirls while the middle remains cheese-y; you can stuff prime rib into the skins for handy sandwiches. They are labor intensive and alternate between being beloved and foolish, like most of the efforts that go into family traditions and holidays.

After the election a couple years ago, I was invited to an “Emergency Friendsgiving.” My friends apportioned potluck responsibilities by ability, so I was originally on wine duty. However, they remembered that, while I am an unskilled and unenthusiastic home cook (in Brooklyn one can live off takeout from a hundred cuisines), I am unafraid of potatoes. I signed on for garlic mashies, which I made in the slow cooker because that way I could get distracted for 5 hours and not ruin them. I ladeled them into tupperware for the long subway ride to my friends’ apartment, the bag sitting on my lap with the warmth and weight of a napping cat. We loaded our plates up with turkey, lasagna, homemade hummus with grilled pita, cranberry from a can, sweet potato pie, and my contribution. Not the traditional Thanksgiving meal we’d all find with our families in a week’s time for the actual holiday, but equally as nourishing.

Finalist: Phoebe Nichols – “Friday Night Eating Suggestion”

We’ve fallen into a Friday routine. After slaving all week as free-lance graphic designers, my husband and I emerge from the basement office into the twilight of a Virginia suburb. We’d gone there to escape hard times in our home state of Maine. President Bush didn’t  believe there was a recession, so we figured we’d go to where he was, and an old friend has offered us work. We have to rent out our house and leave our friends and family behind, but we’ve done this before and a warm southern winter sounds good. The worst part for me is never seeing a familiar face when we shop for food at the Giant, and John hates all the young bureaucrat pedestrians who think nothing of walking us right off the sidewalk as though we’re invisible. The exception is the friendly middle-aged woman living next door who chats with us while demonstrating how to dispose of the copperheads that snake their way into our garage. She is also from Maine and considers us all to be economic refugees. That sounds cool.

       So–our Friday routine is dinner and a rented movie–both in our rented townhouse. That’s the plan. First we drive through the rush hour traffic to a Super Blockbuster store where we have our usual debate over the choice of film. We tend to split along gender lines.

       John says,”Oh, you’ll want a drama or something the critics call ‘hilarious.’ I want one with crime and vengeance and somebody beating the shit out of a bad guy.”

       Sometimes I win the coin toss, and we rent a drama or a foreign drama or an independent drama, but he falls asleep in his chair during the trailers, which rather spoils the fun for me. On this particular Friday, he wins, and it’s “Goodfellas.”

       By this time, it’s getting late and we’re already hungry. We both know what the plan is. John is on what he calls a “program.” He wants to slim down a bit and doesn’t like the word ”diet”, so every Friday, we have a frozen Weight Watchers meal (“No Measuring, No Math”) rather than the home-cooked real food which might seduce him into overeating. We refer to it as “box lunch” and tonight it’s going to be frozen solid Baked Potatoes With Broccoli and Cheese.

       The photograph on the box shows a white china plate on a field of white, a hint of shadow defining the rim of the plate. The potato is divided precisely in half, with a hard edge where the blade went through. It’s been arranged to occupy the front two-thirds of the stark white plate, the

twin potato halves leaning toward each other like a pair of cupped hands. Ten broccoli florets and four sections of stem are held in position by the pale yellow-orange cheese sauce. Three separate puddles of the sauce lie like paint samples under the potato. A lone floret of broccoli and a little piece of stem have strayed from the others and sit to the left of the main composition. On the side of the package in a typeface I recognize as Avant Garde Light, in descending order, are listed: 1 Protein, 1 Vegetable, 1-1/2 Breads, 1/2 Milk.

       Back in Jericho, New York at the International Headquarters of Weight Watchers, a food stylist, a photographer, and a psychologist specializing in eating disorders have collaborated on this masterpiece of the subliminal. This potato is without context. In spite of the cautionary phrase “serving suggestion,” there are no clues to enjoyment here, no “eating suggestion.” No steam rising invitingly from an Idaho spud, slashed open quickly with an X, then pooched up into a mealy well that brims over with melted butter, sour cream, and maybe a dab of salsa for color. No hand-thrown stoneware plate, touchingly out of kilter. No poised fork, no colorful placemat and napkin, no suggestion of an eating companion. No–this 270-calorie portion of protein, carbohydrate, fat and sodium was engineered to be consumed by a lonely overweight woman sitting in a laboratory, while a bored nutritionist observes through a two-way mirror, and makes notes on an aluminum clipboard.

       I’d planned on nuking us a couple of those food equivalents when the entrance to the Wendy’s drive-through window comes into view. My mouth thinks it over, and I salivate. I can taste the pickles by the time I swing the car up to the outdoor menu board. “What on Earth are you doing?” John says, but then the loudspeaker emits a friendly burst of static, and I lean toward it and speak right up.

      “We’ll have two of Dave’s Hot’n Juicy Cheeseburgers, a Baconator, two orders of Biggie Fries, a Trumoo and a Frostie, please. Yes, sir, that should do it!”

Finalist: Penelope Duran – “Child of the Phở Bowl”

My entire life, I’ve felt different from everyone else around me as I moved from place to place as a sort of global vagabond.  There are several clichés about food and about home like home is where the heart is or the way to the heart is through the stomach.  Stir all these clichés together in a linguistic soup, and you might say home is where you have home cooking. Perhaps for some that soup would be clam chowder or lobster bisque.  For me, I feel at home when I have a steaming bowl of phở — a favorite specialty of my mother’s birth country.

I’ve always identified myself as half-American and half-Vietnamese.  I’ve tried to maintain a balanced connection between both halves of my heritage.  The more that time passes the more difficult this becomes.

Since I was two months old I’ve traveled the world, moving from place to place every two to three years due to my father’s job as a diplomat.  Living as a global citizen has been wonderful in many ways and has introduced me to new and varied cultures. It has also made it difficult to stay rooted to my own culture.  Since there’s been large groups of American expats both within the embassy communities where my dad has worked and outside of them, it’s always been easier to stay connected to my American side.  It’s been more difficult to stay connected to my Vietnamese side since the Vietnamese communities aren’t as numerous globally. The main time when I feel truly connected to my Vietnamese heritage is when I visit my maternal grandparents — a Vietnamese alcove in America.

Every time we visit, my siblings and I are greeted by warm bowls of phở, a delicious noodle soup with tender beef and herbs.  I relish grandma’s phở. During these visits, my siblings and I beg to have phở for breakfast, lunch and dinner. More often than not, grandma obliges.

I’ve found connection with my Vietnamese heritage through cuisine.  At multiple residences, there have always been quaint Vietnamese restaurants that served my favorite food.  Even though it was not quite as authentic as grandma’s phở, the stand-ins bring back joyful memories of time spent with my grandparents.  And of course, my mother has made phở in the various kitchens of all our homes. Mom’s phở serves as a reminder that I am in many ways my mother’s daughter — not just in appearance but also in my identity.  I will always be a child of the phở bowl.

Finalist: Bob Emmons – “And beer doesn’t go well with it either”

What’s the deal with women and salad? I can understand eating it for health benefits but women seem to actually enjoy it.  They can make a whole meal out of the stuff. The only guy I ever met who truly likes salad believes that three of the last four presidents of the United States were actually cleverly disguised lizard creatures from another galaxy. Well, maybe.

Salad does serve a function when eating out at a restaurant. It’s something to do after you’ve ordered and are waiting for your meat entrée. However, if you have a good waiter or waitress, he or she will refill the bread basket with more bread or rolls and then the salad course becomes unnecessary.

When considering the relative desirability of salad look to the animal kingdom. Do lions eat salads? No, unless indirectly if the antelope or gazelle has been grazing on the savannah immediately before the lion chowed down.

Who does eat lettuce? Rabbits and slugs. They’re not two animals that generate a lot of respect. I know a person who bit into a slug when eating salad at a fancy restaurant. Apparently this is not an uncommon occurrence. He was so traumatized that to this day he won’t sit within 50 feet of a salad bar.

I’ve eaten some nasty stuff in my life. Snakes during my Army days and when I was teaching Entomology I had students prepare insect recipes found in a book titled ‘Butterflies in My Stomach’. And of course I had to sample them. Delicacies such as grasshopper soup, caterpillar cookies, and my personal favorite- cockroach pudding.  But even with extra croutons and gobs of salad dressing I wouldn’t eat a slug.

And don’t forget all the bacterial pathogens found in salads. People who eat salads probably lose weight because those bacteria cause them to leave a lot of pounds behind in the bathroom.

Yeah, salads can be healthy. But remember the old joke- a doctor tells a middle-aged man that he must stop drinking, excessive partying, and eating red meat, and instead get lots of sleep and eat salads at least twice a day. The fellow asks the doctor, ‘If I follow your instructions will I live longer? The doctor replies ‘Not necessarily, but it will seem longer’.

Finalist: Jane Butterfield – “My Irish Soda Bread”

What can be more ordinary than bread?  The magic comes when the ordinary is changed into the extraordinary. My recipe for Irish Soda Bread comes from my husband’s mother. She shared it with me when I was first dating my husband. I was determined to make this bread since it was one of his favorite foods. I planned on surprising him with this treat, fresh from the oven, lathered with butter, the aroma filling the house as he arrived for our date. I followed the recipe to a tee. The only problem was that I did not understand the meaning of the word, “scant” as applied to the addition of the quantity of milk. I poured in the whole cup at once . The result was an “I Love Lucy” experience. You see, the process of kneading the dough by hand is critical to the success of the bread. My bread dough was more like thick paste. Never the less I plunged both of my hands into the mixture, confident that it would all come together somehow. The dough covered every finger and stuck to anything that I touched as I tried to extricate myself from the gooey mess. Fortunately this was not the end of the story. Humbly I sought guidance and through persistence, I finally learned the right consistency for a good dough.

Homemade Irish Soda Bread is now one of the most treasured traditions in our family. Whenever I make the bread I feel the presence of Grammie, my husband’s mother. Each of my five children have enjoyed making the bread with me through the years. When the grand kids come to visit they always ask, “Can we make a soda bread today?”  I remember when my four year old grandson was just about to knead the bread, he lifted his hands up above his head and he said with all seriousness , “ Okay, I’m goin in!”. Once the bread is in the pan the children remind me to make the baker’s cross on the top of the bread as a special blessing. The aroma of the cooking bread floats through the house calling all to the kitchen to enjoy the fresh bread together.

This is when I enjoy sitting back and savoring the moment. The bread makes present our roots. It combines the past, present and the future. The beauty of the moment is magical. It nurtures the family spirit as well as the body. All of my children have the recipe. I know the creative experience will continue on to the next generation.

Whenever members of the family are expected for a visit the magic and beauty is experienced anew as I am making the bread. I like to have it on the counter waiting for them to arrive. It gives me a joyful sense of anticipation. It is a true north experience for my family. It is not just ordinary bread, but is transformed into a message of love, faith and welcome home.

Finalist: Kate Kastelein – “Sustenance”

My mother tells a story about how, as a toddler, I smashed the pastries for a large Christmas party she was catering. At the time, she and her friend ran a successful business out of their home kitchens. Mom is a fearless chef, and would make anything her clients asked for, including handmade pasta formed into delicate nests, and an elaborate Julia Child recipe titled ‘The Chicken Melon’ which involves deboning an entire chicken, pulverizing the meat, along with other ingredients in a food-processor, and then stuffing the meat back into its own skin. The whole thing is tucked and folded in such a way that a golden-brown chicken ball is presented to guests. Growing up, my brother and I often went to school with the crusty burnt ends of lemon squares, or ham and cheese croissants that hadn’t turned out just right. It took me many years to appreciate how lucky I was to be the kid with the weird food.

When there were still shrimp in the Gulf of Maine, my father would fish for them in the winter. He would return home in the afternoon, with ice in his mustache and a cooler filled with shrimp. We ate them so often, I grew to hate them. I devised an elaborate scheme in which I would make sure I shared a butter dish with Dad so that I could shell my shrimp and leave them in the butter, so he would eat them along with his own. I thought I was pretty tricky, but he told me recently that he’d known about it all along. Now, the shrimp are gone. A few winters ago, I missed that sweet, briny taste so much, I paid nine dollars for three pieces of sushi featuring the little nuggets of pink gold.

My first job was at a local co-op lobster shack. I spent days boiling lobsters, picking out meat, and answering the same questions from tourists over and over: “What’s the difference between a hard and soft-shelled lobster?” and “Why aren’t they red?” Someone would buy the largest lobster in the tank during the height of a busy shift, and would sheepishly send it back so that we could hack it open with a hammer and cleaver we had in the kitchen specifically for that purpose. When it comes to lobsters, bigger doesn’t mean better.

It’s been a long time since I took orders from tourists, but I still shake my head when I hear someone order the largest lobster. My dad has long since retired from fishing, but my mom still has a small baking business. Sometimes, she still lets me eat the burnt ends.