Imagine this. The unceasing cacophony of barking dogs and sunrise-shift chickens…the incongruous smells of cow manure and hot bread. It’s judging day at the Ferny Flats Annual Cake Show.
Of course the exact location of Ferny Flats remains untellable, but the way it prepares for its annual display of excellence and pride in its cookery prowess is echoed uniquely in countless country towns throughout Australia.
The label ‘cookery exhibition’ is one of the great understatements. They are not just displays of cakes. They are events of great consequence, of great personal achievement, of massive civic pride – staged with equal parts of drama, human exertion, passion, tragedy, and of course, comedy.
The ‘need to win’ at the Ferny Flats Annual Cake show is no less challenging to the entrants as it is for any event in the Olympics. A blue ribbon is a personal triumph – and a victory for the town. Anything less is unacceptable.
Which all adds to the imponderably difficult job of the Judge – the ‘out-of-towner’ who might topple the social standing of the best known Country Lady with a single bite of a lamington.
The criteria for judging cookery may seem logical and relatively simple. The ‘best cake’ must have the best appearance, the best texture, the best smell and the best taste. And a good judge with real ability and experience can always pick a winner.
To understand the business of cookery judging, you should know a little about the beast. Cookery shows can be held by almost anyone or any organization - scout groups, retirement homes, dandelion appreciation groups, waterside workers, and of course, most Royal Agricultural and Horticultural Societies.
In every case, there is an organizing committee usually made up of a president and vice president, a secretary, a treasurer, a publicist, someone who knows how to fix the photocopy machine, and a person to make the tea. Cookery contests take months to devise, plan and prepare. The right venue (usually in a large unventilated tent very close to a lot of animals on a muddy road with no parking and not enough public toilets).
Then there’s the judge and her/his team. Generally speaking, the judge is invariably on the ‘pretty-well-known’ list, and will know exactly what to look for. With the Judge will be one or two ‘Judging Stewards’ In some country shows, these stewards were former judges of itty bitty exhibitions. They had the knack of always winning in the section they judged. Even as my steward/assistant, they had a way of getting their own entry fair and square right under my nose.
The real job of the Steward (or Assistant Judge) is to assist. To help the Judge get to the finalists by eliminating the entries which don’t really have a chance. But most Stewards seem to be there to eat. Not just a sliver, a morsel, a collection of crumbs, but everything. There have been times when I would return to, say, a lamington – to find no more than a few crumbs on the plate. It had been ‘tasted; by the stewards, who explained they were comparing theirs with my palate.
Stewards are usually not thin people. They do not generally excel in the art of conservative tasting. At large country shows, they appear to have an ability to clear a table of cakes not unlike a large industrial vacuum cleaner.
Even after hours of food tasting, when all you crave is a cuppa, the Stewards will lead you off to the morning tea – a virtual orgy of cream cakes, scones, loaves, sandwiches and other ‘judging cut-offs’.
The committee, however, is a deadly serious body. Hell-bent on success for the town, they assemble for the all important Annual meeting.
The place, the date and the time is selected, rejected, amended, resubmitted and adopted, and the word goes out. Ferny Flats is having a Cake Show.
Usually quiet – even on New Year’s Eve – the little town shifts into full-ahead. Mrs. Heeps buys in special flour from another suburb. Narelle (on the corner) postpones the Bridge afternoons for a month and starts to prepare for another batch of her famous rhododendron scones.
There are, of course, cake makers who are born to win. They are the true champions…the ones with the culinary equivalent to the gardener’s green thumb. And then there are the others.
Take for starters the architecturally perfect lamingtons I faced last year at a little New South Wales Country show. Nothing wrong with the color and overall appearance, but it was their precise shape that grabbed my attention…until the taste test. Nobody had told the maker that the judge would taste them. Beneath the layer of coconut and chocolate were carefully carved 2 x 2 blocks of Velvet Soap.
Another memorable example of deception was at a show in Central Victoria when one of my stewards broke a denture on a piece of shortbread – a test which proved very quickly that it was not the ‘melting moment’ it was claimed to be.
Surprises must be handled with equal parts of tact, diplomacy and courage…as was the case during bread judging at a well staged show at a small South Australian town. The final decision was between two entrants. One golden brown, crusty creation was lifted for a closer inspection…to reveal a small mouse baked into the bottom of the loaf.
The Blue Ribbon First Prize…whether it is trophy, sash or hamper, is always accompanied by the certificate. While winning one is a public bathe in glory, the real agony must surely be to ‘just lose out’. Second place is no reward for dedication, toil and heartache that goes into the preparation of so many of the entries with which I have been confronted.
I remember vividly the stressed looking husband at a cake show near Sydney as he made his way delicately to the judging table, carrying an elaborately iced wedding cake complete with delicate handcrafted roses and oh-so-fragile extension piped icing. Just as he was about to place the top tier onto to the ‘Eiffel Tower’ creation, he tripped…right into the cake. Destruction was immediate. Attack from his wife was just as swift. Hurling chunks of broken cake, pillars and roses at her retreating husband, she screamed to the judge: ‘well, you saw it before he got to it…judge it from what it was’. There was no way out. Mrs. Eiffel Tower received a hasty ‘Highly Commended.’
Bad decisions, too, are always possible. In Perth for a special competition to track down the best of 2100 fruit cakes, I was met at the airport by a colleague writer who wanted an opinion on her own cake before she decided to enter the marathon. It was somewhere between awful and horrible, and I told her not to enter. Many years later, the same person became my editor.
The contest was certainly special. The hall was a mountain of fruitcake. All made from one recipe, from which a staggering 2100 variations had been created. Creative genius there was, sprinkled with a generous dash of the God-forsaken. Cakes with crusts of pure charcoal, some in plastic bags, still warm and sprouting mould, some with rancid dairy ingredients, others smashed in transit into a million crumbs. As they say, the Show must go on, and it did.
Did someone dare suggest bribery and corruption…in a Cake Show? It is true there have been many ‘If I don’t win, I’m sunk’ sort of conversations before a show, but as you don’t know the entrants until presentation time, there is precious little chance for the heavies in this game. It’s also true that any judge worth her or his taste buds will stay at a very inconspicuous hotel and give their telephone numbers to nobody.
Still, those hell-bent on bribery will stop at nothing. I can never forget Ricky, the kid who pinned a note under his entry telling me the following: a) he was 12 years old. b) He was very good looking, and c), that he would split his winnings with me. What a chance for me! I replied on the same note with a question for Ricky…did his father cook?
Hints for aspiring cookery judges? Apart from the experience you need, there are a few other requirements if you want to make it to the next show: A Hard Hat, a Cast Iron Stomach, Sharp knives (no, for the cakes), a sense of humor, and an unlisted telephone number.