Something About a Sandwich

eliza_cook_cowboy_boots_0314I was chatting with Biggie’s teacher one day and she asked me if I’d heard from Whosit about the whatsit contest Biggie won. I said no, but, “Yes, definitely, very exciting…have her send me the paperwork…” nodding my head knowingly all the while having not the slightest idea what she was talking about. All I could gather was that it had something to do with a sandwich. I somehow got through the conversation without revealing my utter confusion and ignorance and pumped Biggie for information as soon as she got off the bus that afternoon.

Apparently a number of classes entered a healthy sandwich recipe contest a few weeks before and two kids at the school won, Biggie and a boy in her class. They were now invited to move on to some sort of cooking contest. The details remained sketchy. Biggie couldn’t remember the exact recipe she submitted, but she knew it contained turkey, “monster cheese” (muenster) and pickles. She wasn’t sure about the bread, but she had a vague notion that it was on a rolled up tortilla.

I had no clue who was sponsoring this contest, what the cooking competition would involve or how in the hell Biggie won with a turkey, cheese and pickle sandwich. About a week later, I received the mysterious paperwork in the mail which included some details about the event and a photo release I was required to sign and return. The photo release put me on alert that this might be a bigger deal than I originally imagined.

future_chefs_vert_0314It turns out that this was part of an annual “Future Chef” contest organized by Sodexo, the company that manages the fine dining at school cafeterias across the country. In a few weeks, Biggie and an unspecified number of other winners would move on to the district finals where they’d be required to make their sandwich for a panel of judges and fifty other people. Fifty!  All ingredients would be provided, each contestant would have one adult helper and the event would take approximately four hours. Four hours!

This concerned me for a number of reasons. First, the event would begin at 8 am on a Saturday morning, at a school about thirty minutes away. As is my luck, on that particular Saturday morning (and for numerous days before and after it) Ad Man would be schmoozing and partying his way through the interactive section of South by Southwest (“SXSW” for you hipsters) in Austin, Texas. This meant that I would have to get two kids up and ready to hit the road by 7:15 am in order to go sit at a cooking competition for hours. This was far from my idea of a relaxing Saturday morning.

I was also concerned (or maybe the better word for it would be ‘hopeful’) that Biggie would want nothing to do with this. My eight year-old self would have run for the hills if someone told me I had to make food for fifty people and present my dish to a panel of judges. Not Biggie. She was super excited and ready to go!  It occurs to me that maybe she’s not actually my child. She was conceived in a petri dish after all. Any number of things could have fallen into that dish.

Over the next few weeks, she practiced making her sandwich and figured out the best way to serve small portions to a crowd of people. Concerned that she’d be crushed at the competition by other, more creative, sandwiches, I suggested that she might want to add some sort of condiment…mustard, mayo, hummus? But, she stood strong and insisted on sticking with her turkey, cheese and pickle sandwich rolled up in a tortilla and cut into cute, sushi-like rolls.

By the time the big day arrived, I was already in a frazzled, pissy mood from single-parenting while Ad Man posted daily online reports about drinking moonshine, bumping into old friends and going to see astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson speak. (N.DeG.T. is one of my biggest crushes, by the way. Seriously, that man’s brain is so damn sexy!) Thankfully, my friend B, offered to take Smalls for the morning so I wouldn’t have to try to entertain her for hours in a place I knew nothing about. I can’t tell you how many times I tried to wrap my mind around what this event would be like and why the hell it would take four hours to make some sandwiches!

Biggie and I left home slightly late and I knew we’d be cutting it close, but I had to stop and grab a large tea en route or I feared I’d spend the entire morning with a raging headache. On the way, I attempted to lower Biggie’s expectations a bit. I told her that she shouldn’t be disappointed if she didn’t win and that I was already really proud of her for having her recipe chosen and for working so hard on practicing her sandwich. Biggie, ever the optimist, replied, “Yeah, I know, Mom. I might only win, like, third place or something.” Oh boy. I had no doubt we were walking into a kids’-cooking-competition bloodbath.

As it turned out, we arrived a few minutes late after cluelessly wandering around the school until we spied a few balloons marking the entrance to the event location. The cooking contest was, of course, held in the school cafeteria. I don’t know why I expected a ‘Top Chef’-style soundstage complete with high-end kitchen appliances. Too many years spent living in LA, I guess. There was a long table set for five judges, a table overflowing with goodie bags, prizes and trophies and signs and balloons everywhere. The rest of the attendees, mostly parents and siblings, were directed to the cafeteria tables.

It was not thirty seconds after we walked in the room that, sitting down to fill out some paperwork, I managed to spill my giant chai tea latte over every important document for the competition–sign-in sheets, photo releases, the judges’ name tags–everything!  Not only did I feel like an ass, but that also left me with no goddamn tea! And I couldn’t get any more for four hours!  Four!  (Sorry, lack of caffeine affects me in many ways, one of which is excessive use of exclamation points.)

After I helped mop up the welcome table, the event started chugging along. One of the organizers called out the childrens’ names. Our melodious surname is Schokchtckhtshechkt (or might as well be) so, unsurprisingly, the woman butchered Biggie’s name and attributed her to the wrong school. That was one of the few times I saw a crack in Biggie’s confident veneer. However, her chest puffed right back up as soon as she donned her very own ceremonial Sodexo apron and chef’s hat. And, she looked so damn cute, the ice in my heart actually began to melt a bit too.

eli_smile_pesto_0314The kids were matched with their adult helpers and ushered into the cafeteria kitchen where they were given a short safety lesson and a copy of their original recipe. They were each assigned a workspace and the countdown began. Because of the long time-frame, I was expecting that there would be countless children in the competition, but there were really only about fifteen kid-contestants. They were given one hour to complete their cooking.

Parents could see into the kitchen, but we were kept behind the cafeteria-tray ledge during this prep time. I got as close to Biggie as I could to take some pictures of her working and she held up a slice of bread to me with a quizzical look on her face. I mouthed to her something like, “No tortillas? No problem. Just do the best you can.” I then saw her having a serious discussion with her sous chef about the bread options, ultimately deciding to go with a whole wheat baguette. I thought this was a good culinary choice and an inspired tactical move since this was a healthy sandwich contest and returned to my cafeteria seat confident that Biggie had things under control.

The cafeteria was spotless, but that didn’t keep the lone cockroach from zeroing in on me and running across my foot as I was making small talk with the parents of the other kid from Biggie’s classroom. With the classmate’s little sister yelling, “Squish it, squish it!,” I used my cat-like reflexes and stomped on the offending roach. I was haunted by the sight of its flattened corpse for the rest of the morning.

With all the excitement, the hour passed fairly quickly and the judging phase of the event began. An organizer introduced the judges which consisted of bigwigs from Sodexo and the Atlanta Public School District and a reporter from the local “11 Alive News.” Damn near every person in the room was introduced and thanked, including the Sodexo mascot, some fuzzy, blue, star-shaped thing named Lift-Off who had been enthusiastically cheering on the young chefs. Nervous children stood patiently clutching their completed dishes.

The way judging went was that each kid would walk up to the judge’s table with his or her presentation plate. The judges munched on their tasting samples and asked each young chef some questions. Meanwhile, everyone in the audience also received a sample of each sandwich. As she waited, Biggie looked a little anxious which made me a complete nervous wreck!

eliza_cook_judging_0314Biggie’s turn eventually came and she was amazingly poised, explaining her recipe and responding to the judges’ many questions. I got my sample of her sandwich, picked off the turkey (Biggie’s creativity was clearly not stifled by the fact that I don’t eat or cook meat) and took a bite. I was shocked to discover that it was quite tasty! As it turns out, she had completely forgotten the recipe she submitted. Her actual recipe called for a lightly toasted baguette, with turkey, muenster cheese a pickle and pesto. (Aha…the forgotten secret ingredient!)  She’d specified in her recipe that the sandwich should be lightly warmed so that the “monster cheese” would melt a bit into the baguette. She also mixed together a little pesto and butter and swiped it on top of the toasty bread. I was no longer baffled as to why Biggie was a winner in the recipe contest. I was, however, still baffled as to how she came up with such a tasty recipe. I mean, I love to cook and I’ve baked and cooked with Biggie and Smalls since they were toddlers. But, it’s not like I’ve had them studying old episodes of ‘Chopped’ like football players watching game films.

eliza_mommy_cook_0314After judging, Biggie came and sat on my lap, needing a snuggle after an action-packed hour of cooking. I was so proud of her. It was a rare treat being able to witness her taking on something new and challenging with such confidence and grace. It was nice to think, for a moment, that maybe my daughters won’t be saddled with all my neuroses after all. And to think that maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t completely failing at this whole motherhood thing.

In the end, Biggie shocked us both by winning 2nd Prize!  The look on her face when they called her name was priceless and not even the mangled pronunciation could dim her smile. I would have cried if I weren’t so busy hugging her, snapping photos and texting everyone with the exciting news. I really wish Ad Man could have been there with me to see our little girl glowing with such an empowering sense of accomplishment. There are many, many days when parenting can be the most thankless job in the world. And then there are those rare days that make you realize that all the work, anxiety and frustration are worth every crazy minute. This was one of those days.

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