I grew up in a small farming community in southern Illinois, where all the boys belonged to the Future Farmers of America and joined the boys’ 4-H Club to raise chickens, calves, and pigs. All the girls belonged to the Future Homemakers of America and joined the girls’ 4-H Club to learn cooking and sewing. All my girlfriends were in 4-H and so, even though I had little interest in cooking or sewing, I joined too.
I pretty quickly caught on to sewing, but cooking seemed beyond my capabilities or interest.
During the spring the year I turned 16, my 4-H leader asked me to do some kind of cooking demonstration for our local club. I knew next to nothing about cooking and told her so, but she was adamant. I didn’t really know how to cook anything, but at last I hit upon the idea of making homemade pizza from a Chef Boyardee pizza mix. It came with a flour and yeast mixture, a can of pizza sauce and a small package of grated Parmesan cheese. Oil, water and pizza pan needed to be supplied by the cook.
Pizza was a pretty new thing in our remote county, so there was a modicum of interest in pizza making.
The demonstration went pretty well, all things considered. I oiled the pizza pan, stirred the flour and yeast mixture and water into a dough and pressed the dough into the pan (the hardest part, by far). I poured on the pizza sauce, sprinkled on the cheese, and voila, a pizza ready for the oven.
It was probably pretty pathetic overall, but my 4-H leader was happy. I didn’t think another thought about it. But during early summer, my 4-H leader asked me to repeat the demonstration, this time to county 4-H leaders. Plus, they would need a finished product, so I would have to make a pizza at home and bring it along, fully cooked, to show how it would look when finished.
I really didn’t want to do it, but again, the leader was pretty insistent, so I went to the event and obliged: oil, dough, sauce, cheese, and then showed the finished product I had baked the night before. The county 4-H leaders were stone-faced through the entire ordeal, giving me absolutely no feedback on how I had done. I was just relieved that it was over. I was beginning to hate pizza making.
So I was astonished when my 4-H leader told me I had come in second in the cooking demonstration competition. I hadn’t even realized there was a competition. As a reward, I would be sent to the state fair along with the other winners.
Oh my gosh, I had come in second! I must be better at this demonstration thing than I thought. Because I had placed second, not first, I would not have to demonstrate my pizza-making skills at the state level. A free trip to the state fair and no more pizza demonstrations? I was thrilled!
My parents were a little less thrilled, but finally agreed to let me go, after being reassured that all the attendees would be fully chaperoned.
I had a wonderful time. I was the only person from my local 4-H club to have won a trip to the state fair in recent memory, so my 4-H leader was over the moon. I met girls from other 4-H clubs around the state and made some instant friendships. We had to attend several 4-H events, including a seminar on how to give a cooking demonstration (I had done everything wrong, apparently), but the rest of the time was ours to spend as we wished. We rode all the rides, ate all the terrible fair food and slept in a huge tented building with rows upon rows of bunk beds.
We saw both sides of the fair, the livestock and handcrafting side and the carnival side, and found them equally fascinating. It was like seeing the bright lights of a big city for the first time. For a country girl with few opportunities to get out much, it was heaven on a platter.
It was later in the fall that I learned the whole, embarrassing truth. That year, only three girls from the whole county did cooking demonstrations in the competition, so I would have qualified to go to the state fair if I had demonstrated merely how to butter bread or pour water into a tumbler. For a minute or two, I wondered how bad the third-place winner must have been, to have finished behind me. My pizza pie was really humble pie.
In the long term, however, I realized that it didn’t really matter. I had been to the state fair, and I would remember that experience with great fondness for the rest of my life.
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