"Ach, giddyup, Billy!" Esther Kurth urged her aqua-blue Rambler around the corner as we turned off the gravel road onto the smooth tar of the county highway. Esther's right leg, stout as a tree trunk and encased in thick support hose, flowed directly into her black lace-up old-lady shoes without the slightest insinuating curve of an ankle. I watched from the passenger seat as Esther's heavy shoe pressed the gas pedal to the floor. "Ach, Billy," she said again as the old car bucked before taking the gas. In my mind's eye I saw the Rambler take the corner on two wheels, like a car in the Saturday morning cartoons, but we couldn't really be driving that fast, I thought. After straightening out on the tar road, Esther floored it again. It was still forty miles to Bird Island and we were running late for the contest.
Esther had agreed to drive me this year when my mother had decided not to go. "It's just too hard on me not to see you win," Mom had said. "What's the point of entering a contest if you don't win it?" Second or third place was not good enough for my mother, and certainly anything below that was worse. Honorable mention was not an honor, in her opinion, nor was it worth mentioning. Mom had always been a winner back when she was in 4-H in the 1950s. When she was a teenager, Mom had won a trip to the Minnesota State Fair and stayed three whole days in the 4-H dormitory, sleeping on a triple-decker iron bunk bed and eating from a tray at the long tables in the cafeteria. She had given her baking demonstration at the fair, and afterward had her picture taken with Senator Hubert Humphrey for the newspaper. And she had won the grand prize of a brand new electric Mix Master, the very one we still used today, standing in its corner on the kitchen counter. The white enamel was chipped now, but the motor was still good. It was just that superior of an appliance, Mom said.
Today's contest was the same event my mother had competed in some twenty years earlier: the Silent Bread and Pie Contest. I was only competing in the Silent Bread part, because I'd turned fourteen that year, old enough to be in the Senior Division. For Senior Silent Pie you had to peel and core all your own apples, which I was not good at. Maybe if I were still a Junior I would have entered Silent Pie, too. The juniors just had to open a can of apple pie filling and dump it in the pie plate. Anyone could do that, for cripe's sake, even a klutz like me.
"It's just too hard on me not to see you win," Mom had said. "What's the point of entering a contest if you don't win it?"
Silent Bread and Pie was like an ancient ritual. It had existed when my mother was my age, and maybe even long before that, I don't know. The competition itself seemed to be exactly the same as it had been all those years ago, but first prize was no longer a trip to the State Fair. I didn't really know what the prize was, to tell the truth. A purple ribbon for sure, but what else? Maybe just the glory of it. Despite the lack of a big prize, Mom still wanted me to enter Silent Bread, and to win. Because that's what she had done, I thought, while she'd hovered over me as I'd filled out the entry form. Mom was always after me to do all the same things she'd done as a girl—join 4-H, take piano lessons, even play the cornet in the school band. I'd wanted to play something feminine, like the flute or clarinet, but no, Mom had played cornet and now her daughter would, too. What did I have that was mine alone? What had I ever chosen for myself?
But I wasn't thinking about that today. I was too nervous about the contest, sneaking glances at my watch, worrying whether we'd get there in time. "Ach, don't worry, Katty," Esther said when she caught me peeking. "We'll just make it, we will." Esther pronounced my name Katty instead of Kathy, her voice the same rich blend of Low German and Minnesota farmer I'd grown up with among the older folks in the neighborhood. Esther said "ach" all the time, and sometimes even "ach du himmel" or "ach du lieber." She couldn't pronounce a "th" sound, so my name came out Katty, but I liked the way she said it. Esther herself had the "th" sound in both her names, first and last. She pronounced Esther the same way everyone did, "Es-ter," but when she said Kurth it came out more like "Court." I figured a person could pronounce her own name however she wanted; it was Esther's decision to make, and wasn't it more logical to pronounce both "th"s the same? Whenever Esther talked about the men threshing out in the fields, she said "treshing." Curiously, the only time I heard Esther pronounce a "th" was when she said the word "trash." Then she said "thrash," like "Come on and help me empty this thrash can." I loved that about her, I don't know why. My mom, who was a school teacher, hated it when the old folks talked like that, but she was too polite to ever remark on it to their faces.
Esther Kurth and her husband Art had been adult leaders of the Boon Lake Orioles 4-H club for years, starting when their own two children were members, and then continuing on for decades after their kids had grown up and moved away to farms of their own. Esther was closer to my grandmother's age than my mother's, but she had more energy, more get-it-done enthusiasm, than both my mother and grandmother combined. Esther's big thing in 4-H was participation, not winning. "Everyone should just participate and try their best," Esther was always saying to us 4-H'ers. "It don't matter if you win or lose, just do your best and that's the most important t'ing of it." I wanted to believe her when she said that, but there was always my mother’s voice lurking behind: What's the point if you don't win?
So I was glad Mom wasn't coming to Silent Bread this year. Last year when she'd come along to watch me I had not done well, dropping my measuring spoons on the floor with a clatter, breaking the silence. I'd flushed beet red as I took them to the kitchen to wash before I could continue and lost valuable minutes in the race to finish preparing my dough. "Why didn't you think to bring an extra set of spoons?" Mom hissed at me later, while we waited for the results. "Or better yet, not drop them in the first place." I hadn't won, not even placed in the top three, but I didn't think it was because of the spoons. My loaf had been too long for the standard size pan we were all required to use, so that it had humped up and wiggled a bit to one side in order to fit. It looked like a misshapen inchworm; even after it had risen and was baked you could still see that wiggle. That was probably what had done it. At the next 4-H meeting the club president announced under the New Business portion of the agenda that I had competed in Silent Bread. No mention was made of winning or placing: I had participated. Esther had beamed at me from her chair on the side of the room.
Silent Bread and Pie goes like this:
For Silent Bread, all the girls (I never once saw a boy compete in Silent Bread and Pie, although now that it was 1972 I suppose theoretically one could have) were given the same official 4-H recipe to make one loaf of white bread. All the ingredients were provided to us on the day of the contest, but we each brought our own bowls and pans and utensils from home. We used dry yeast dissolved in warm water, the temperature measured with a candy thermometer to the optimum 110 degrees. We used scalded milk and sugar and enriched white flour and salt and shortening cut in with a pastry cutter. We made a well of the dry ingredients and poured in the liquid ones and stirred. We turned the raw dough out onto a floured pastry cloth and greased the sticky bowl with our fingers, then turned the bowl upside down over the dough to let it rest for ten minutes. While the dough rested, we carried our dirty utensils to the kitchen on trays to quickly wash and dry, then returned to our posts to knead the dough, all under the watchful eye of the judge, usually a retired home economics teacher from another county (to avoid any conflict of interest). The judge sat at a table in front of our U-shaped group and made little notes in what I'm sure was a neat cursive script.
We kneaded our dough for the prescribed number of minutes, either setting a timer or looking at our watches. I always gave my dough an extra half-minute or so to try and eliminate any stray air bubbles lurking within, which could cost you major points in the final judging. After kneading, we each plunked our ball of dough into our greased bowl, swirling it around just a bit to lightly grease the mound, and covered it with a scrupulously clean terry cloth tea towel. Ceremoniously carrying our bowls to the judge's table, we lifted a corner of the towel to allow her to review the dough before carrying it back to the kitchen to rise. The judge would raise her eyebrows when she looked at your dough, sometimes giving a half smile or a slight nod. I never saw her frown, although she may have done that for some of the last stragglers. I tried to time everything perfectly—never the first one to take her dough to the kitchen, I aimed to be second or third so as to give the impression that I was speedy, but not overly hasty and thus potentially careless.
And all this, as the name of the contest implies, was done in silence. There was no talking, no music, no sound made by participants nor judge nor audience. (And there was a crowd of onlookers, mostly mothers and sisters of the contestants, seated on folding chairs off to one side.) In the auditorium there were only the sounds of measuring, stirring, kneading—simply the sound of baking being performed. I never knew why it was important to bake bread in silence, as if we were some sort of cloistered order of nuns—that's just the way it was. I don't know what would have happened if someone had spoken aloud, or even started humming a little breathy tune as she kneaded, lost in the pleasure of the cool, elastic dough under her hands. Would she have been disqualified, I wonder? I never saw it happen. We all knew back then how to stay silent. It was like church in a way: a sanctuary of white bread, the incense of yeast and scalded milk, the gospel of salt and sugar and flour.
I tried to time everything perfectly—never the first one to take her dough to the kitchen, I aimed to be second or third so as to give the impression that I was speedy, but not overly hasty and thus potentially careless.
Or maybe it was more like a science lab, with clean, white-coated females at work on their chemistry experiments, calibrating, measuring, mixing in silent efficiency. There was something about the precision of the exercise, the temperature and timing controls, the way we all had to use the exact same recipe and ingredients but could end up with vastly differing results, which made it seem vaguely scientific. It was 4-H baking, after all, not real baking like we did at home. For 4-H baking you had to spoon the flour gently into a measuring cup, then level it off with a straight-edge to ensure a precise amount, not just dump it in with a flour scoop and give the cup a shake. You had to use dry measuring cups for flour and sugar and liquid measures for milk and water, and when you poured the liquids into the glass Pyrex cup, you had to set the cup on a flat surface and then kneel down so you could view it at eye level, making sure the surface of the milk was exactly even with the red line marking the designated amount. In 4-H baking, you couldn't hold the cup up to your face and eyeball it, or squint down at it from above, because it might not be absolutely accurate that way. It always felt like genuflecting to me, or curtsying before a queen. Curtsy to the cup, is how I thought of it. It felt dumb at first, so I practiced at home until it seemed natural and right to do it that way. I practiced so much, this perfect measuring and curtsying, that after awhile, I couldn't not do it. I guess that's what learning to bake the 4-H way was trying to accomplish in the end: baking as science. Consistent results. Precision. Perfection. Or at least as near to perfection as a fourteen-year old girl could get.
Esther was humming a tune under her breath as we hurtled past farm fields in her old Billy. Her steel gray hair was in tight pin curls, and rhinestones glinted at the corners of her cat's-eye glasses. Esther's amazing bosom seemed to start just below her throat and then curve out and out and down until it curved in again at the fabric-covered belt at her waist. It seemed the entire front half of her was nothing but cush, all bosom from chin to waist, barely contained by her flowery rayon dress and whatever heavy-duty undergarments might lie beneath. Her right leg continued to pound the accelerator to the floorboard, in much the same way she stomped on the organ pedals when she occasionally substituted for the regular church organist at Sunday morning services. Esther could play the piano a little, at least enough to manage the familiar Lutheran hymns, but she wasn't much good on the pipe organ pedals. Still, she played with German conviction; once her tree-trunk leg pressed down on a low note, whether that note was right or wrong, Esther stuck with it and played it for all she was worth—which, when it happened to be a wrong note, seemed a very long measure indeed. "Participation," I imagined Esther telling herself while she held fast to one of those long, wrong notes. "That's what counts. They need me to fill in and I do the best I can."
It was a hot day and the wind coming in through the car windows blew my long hair into a tangled mess. Oh well, I would brush it out when we got there and then pull it back into a ponytail for the competition. Mom had given me some old 4-H headband thing to wear over my hair. She had worn it back when she was competing—in those days all the girls wore them, she said. She'd laundered it with bleach to get the yellow out, then pressed and starched it until it looked brand new, a narrow band of white muslin with a little green four-leaf clover printed in the middle, the 4-H symbol. I pledge my Head to clearer thinking, my Heart to greater loyalty, my Hands to larger service, and my Health to better living. That's how the 4-H pledge went. The cloth went around your head and tied in the back, kind of like a fast-food worker's cap. I guess it kept your hair from getting into the bread dough, though I couldn't really see how it would work. But it did look very 4-H'y, old-fashioned and dorky. Mom said the judge would really like it, that I'd score extra points, so I'd agreed to wear it.
Mom had put a lot of thought into my entire outfit, in fact. A blue cotton dress I'd sewn myself (another 4-H project), with short sleeves to keep any cuffs out of the dough, and a pure white collar that framed my face and made me appear fresh and crisp. Thin white knee highs and navy blue flats. No jewelry of any kind, no nail polish. Everything about me had to look fresh, innocent, and clean clean clean. Just the way a Silent Bread champion was supposed to look. It was all a game to my mother—she considered every aspect, calculated every angle. It was very important to her that I win, that I do everything possible in my power to impress the judge.
But there was one thing Mom didn't do: help me bake bread. She didn't even watch my practice sessions. She'd just say, "Did you practice today?" or "Are you going to make a practice loaf?" And most days I did, because our family of six could eat a whole loaf of fresh bread for supper, so however much I turned out would always be put to use.
Everything about me had to look fresh, innocent, and clean clean clean. Just the way a Silent Bread champion was supposed to look.
My baking utensils clanked in the box resting on old Billy's back seat as Esther took the final corner heading south into Bird Island. We were almost there. I reached back and dug around in the box for my recipe card, pulling it out to review my notes. It wasn't just the recipe itself, which I had memorized anyway, but a whole list of exactly everything I should do, in precise order. I wasn't very good at doing things in sequence and tended to get flustered if I got the steps out of order.
Here's what the card said:
1 ½ tsp. yeast
¾ c. water (warm)
½ c. milk
1 Tb. lard (TAKE EXTRA LARD)
Also, added in capital letters at the top of the card: "MEASURE WATER BEFORE MILK." That was so the measuring cup was still clean when you put in the milk. Then, "EXTRA FLOUR." That was for flouring and kneading on the pastry cloth.
After that it said, in what seemed like the simplest, most obvious steps: "Go back to table. When judge says start, mix yeast. Measure 3 c. flour, 1 ½ tsp. salt, 1 Tb. sugar in bowl. Cut in 1 Tb. lard. Make a well. Add yeast and milk. Stir well. Set up pastry cloth, flour. Let dough rest 10 min. under greased bowl. Go to kitchen with dirty dishes. Come back. Knead dough well. Set to rise. Go to kitchen. TAKE UP PASTRY CLOTH, ALL TOWELS, APRON, HAIR."
Then there was a diagram I'd drawn showing how to arrange my utensils on the large cookie sheet I used as a tray. All were labeled: bowl, blender, containers, glass meas. cup, sm. bowl, meas. cups, spoons, pastry brush, tsp., tbsp., spatula, r.s. (rubber scraper), w.s. (wooden spoon). I had a duplicate card just like it, in case I lost the first one. Everything that was underlined or in capital letters was something I had forgotten or screwed up in the past, so I needed to be prepared for any nervous mistake I might make. Everything I did would be scrutinized by the judge, so if I forgot anything I could just look down at my card to remember the steps. The important thing, Mom told me, was not to appear flustered on the outside. Just look calm and cool, keep your eyes neutral, a slight smile on your face to show you're in control at all times. Try to look like you're enjoying yourself, she said. Keep your lips together so you don't slip up and say anything out loud. "You wouldn't want to be DQ'd." That meant disqualified. So it could happen, I thought. Yikes.
The Bird Island school cafeteria was humming with busy, efficient girls and women when Esther and I arrived, just before the senior Silent Bread contest was scheduled to begin. I was the last girl to check in at the registration table and pick up my contestant number. Twenty-one. That sounded lucky. Esther carried my box of utensils to the kitchen while I hurried to the girls' bathroom to pull back my hair and put on the 4-H headband. Washing my hands, I saw two girls looking at me in the mirror with big eyes; one of them poked the other with her elbow and smirked. Okay, so this stupid headband was even dorkier than I thought. I didn't see anyone else wearing one, but now that I had it on I might as well stick with it. I tilted my chin up and went out to find Esther and my baking stuff to get ready for the competition.
Long cafeteria tables were set up in a U-shape for us to work at, with a small table and folding chair for the judge on the open end. I took my box over to a long side on the judge's right—Mom had said it was the best position to be in, where the judge would naturally tend to look if she were right-handed ("only ten percent of the population are lefties," Mom had informed me), but not directly facing the judging table. More important, the audience would be behind me, so if I felt nervous baking bread silently in front of a crowd, I wouldn't have to see them and could simply pretend they weren’t there.
Looking at the diagram on my index card, I arranged all my bowls and cups and spoons on the tray in exact formation, then gave the cardboard box to Esther to take back into the kitchen. "Ach, you'll do just fine," Esther said. "Just make a good loaf, then."
I stood at my spot, ready to start, looking down at my card and sneaking peeks at the other girls setting up around me. Nobody wore a 4-H headband. Some weren't even wearing dresses, but instead had on jeans or even shorts. Some of them set up their utensils in neat arrangements like mine, but others just piled them up on the table any which old way. I quickly figured out the four or five girls from the twenty or so around me who I thought would be my stiffest competition. I'd keep my eye on them throughout the contest, gauging my own progress to theirs.
When the judge emerged from a side door, the room hushed. A middle-aged woman in a navy A-line skirt, a pastel blouse with tucks stitched down the front, and a print scarf tied around the neck, her hair neatly styled and sprayed into a soft bouffant, and half-moon glasses on the tip of her nose. She smiled and nodded pleasantly to the audience and then to us as she took her seat at the judging table. Then she straightened some papers, the scoring sheets I guessed, picked up a ballpoint pen and clicked it open. With a deliberate glance at her wristwatch, she said simply, "Begin."
Once I got started, I felt okay. My nervousness disappeared into the pleasure of mixing the dough. I only felt awkward when it was my turn to go up to the supply table to measure out my ingredients in front of the judge, because she was so close and she watched you like a hawk, whether you were neat or sloppy. It was during that step the year before when I'd dropped my measuring spoons. But this time it all went smoothly, my hands were practiced and steady, and I did a deep knee bend to check the levels of milk and water. Curtsy to the cup, I thought to myself, making sure not to bend over at the waist and show my slip to the audience behind me. The judge was my queen now and she sat in majesty before me. I saw her looking at my 4-H headband with a little smile and I smiled back at her. I bet she wore one of these things thirty years ago, just like my mom did, I thought. She's remembering that.
The judge was my queen now and she sat in majesty before me. I saw her looking at my 4-H headband with a little smile and I smiled back at her. I bet she wore one of these things thirty years ago, just like my mom did, I thought. She’s remembering that.
When the first girl finished mixing and set her dough to rest under the bowl, then carried her dirty utensils to the kitchen, I quickly followed suit. Esther met me at the swinging door and held it open to let me pass. "Ach, it's going good," she said. "You're doing everything so smooth." Contestants were allowed to talk while in the kitchen. Esther was already running a sinkful of hot, soapy water, and she washed the cups and spoons while I dried them and stashed the ones I no longer needed in my box. "Yah, so remember then to knead it a good ten minutes," Esther said. "And then don't forget to show your dough to the judge before you set it to rise."
"No problem," I said.
The kitchen gradually filled up with the other girls and their helpers, mostly mothers who fussed affectionately over their daughters in much the same way Esther fussed over me. It was different, though, because Esther wasn't my mother, nor did she feel like one to me. She felt better somehow—more supportive, less nervous-making. I was glad it was Esther there with me, and although I wouldn't have admitted it to anyone, glad that my own mother had stayed home.
Kneading bread dough in silence for ten minutes was the hardest part of Silent Bread. Ten minutes is an eternity in a room full of silent people, all watching you. Even the judge must have been bored by it. What was there to see? Once you had observed all the contestants' kneading methods, which varied little, you'd pretty much seen everything you needed to after the first couple of minutes. For my own kneading technique (the same one I still use to this day), I always used the base of my palms, push down and in hard (a silent little oomph), quickly turn the dough over on itself a quarter turn and push again, (oomph), and again, and again, and again.
After only a couple of minutes of kneading, your wrists and forearms might start to ache and you glance up at the clock on the wall—eight more minutes!—but then you fall into it, find your second wind, feel the dough firm up into the cool, slightly sticky, elastic ball it's meant to be. And it just becomes so lovely, so transcendent, so mesmerizing, that it is then you want to sing. A hum might start in your throat, but for Silent Bread you don't let it come out. Instead, you allow a song to form in your head and you sing it in silence, hearing it only in your mind, the imaginary notes falling to the rhythm of your hands kneading the dough on the table before you. And although the other contestants around you are silent, too, it is a singing moment, and you almost feel like you are all singing the same song, in harmony to the synchronized, pulsing rhythm of your hands and arms, a choir of bread bakers no one else can hear.
Again I waited until the first girl had finished, the one who seemed so hasty as to be careless, then allowed another, more careful girl to finish second. I rolled the off-white silken ball of dough onto my floury forearm and palmed it, then plopped it into the greased mixing bowl and expertly rolled it around to lightly grease the dough for rising. Centering the glistening ball in the bowl, I covered it with a green and white dishtowel (the 4-H colors! Mom really did think of everything) and carried it up to the judge's table. I pulled back a corner of the towel to allow her to review the perfect ball of bread dough nestled inside, feeling like a maternity nurse showing off a newborn baby to an admiring visitor. The judge smiled and nodded, making some marks on her paper, and I sailed off to the kitchen with my dough to show Esther and then set it to rise with all the other bowls.
"Ach, it's a beauty," Esther said in the kitchen. "Let's just tuck it in right here where it's good and warm and then we'll go watch the Silent Pie."
Because of the need for bread dough to rise, then be punched down and shaped into a loaf, then rise again, and finally baked before the final judging and results could be declared, Silent Bread could take up the better part of a day, what with the junior and senior categories. But there was lots of downtime between acts, and it was then that Silent Pie took place, allowing for some girls to compete in both Bread and Pie. Since I wasn't a double contestant, I took off my 4-H headband and stashed it in my equipment box until I was on again, then followed Esther down the hallway to the Home Ec room where Silent Pie was about to begin.
This was the senior division, the juniors having gone earlier. Now it was my turn to watch from the audience. Some of the girls I'd just made bread with were hurrying to set up for pie-making. I kept my eye on one of them especially, Becky Nosbush from the Birch Coulee Cardinals. I figured Becky to be my main competition to win Silent Bread. She was so perfect in all she did, possessing an otherworldly calm, as smooth as the silky dough she produced, nearly mechanical in all her movements. That's what Becky Nosbush was, a machine, a Silent Bread machine—well-oiled, functional, neither too fussy nor careless in her preparation. She was a year older than me, and she was the one to beat. But for Silent Pie, I wasn't even going to try. I'd watched Becky make pie the year before, had seen the circular perfection of her rolled-out crust, the evenness of her edges crimped between thumb and fingers. But it was her apple-peeling abilities that I knew I could never match, or even approach.
I watched her now as she proceeded to the ingredients table to gather and measure. With a practiced eye, Becky selected five Rome Beauties from the bushel basket on the table and went back to her spot to begin. Unlike my own strategy of keeping my back to the audience, Becky Nosbush had boldly chosen to face the crowd gathered to watch Silent Pie. She picked up her peeler and began, tilting her head slightly, eyes downcast, focused only on the apple in her hand. She began at the top, as anyone would do, working quickly with that machine-like precision as I stared, mesmerized, looking only at her. Everyone watched her, rapt, as the thin, even peel curlicued downward, growing longer, a spiral of red skin, white flesh, red, white, red, white. She was at the halfway point, the apple's equator, then down, down, to the bottom. The spiraling peel cut off then, dropping onto the waxed paper she'd spread out on the table, one smoothly executed apple peel of perfection. Four to go.
It shouldn't have mattered for the contest, one way or another, whether Becky Nosbush could peel an apple in one continuous piece, or whether she scraped it this way and that, sending shards of peel flying the way one might scrape a potato over the sink. The other girls competing around her were peeling their apples just any old way—some in tiny pieces, some vertically up and down like a carrot. Some were watching Becky out of the corners of their eyes and trying to match her, but no one could. Another girl might get halfway there, an excited look on her face, eyes widening, cheeks flushing, when—snip—somehow her blade went through the skin and cut it off. As it fell away and she kept going, looking deflated but trying not to show it, I knew it didn't matter. These were the scraps, the peelings, what was left behind—not the pie itself. This was a pie-baking contest, after all, not an apple-peeling contest.
But somehow, right then, that's exactly what it was. After Becky had peeled her first apple all in one piece, a feat none of her competitors accomplished, it became only a matter of whether she could do it again with her second apple. Becky did. And then again with her third. It was as if she was on a darkened stage now, a spotlight beam shining on her alone, as she performed for us, a soliloquy of apple-peeling. As I watched her—sensing the hushed expectancy of the audience, hearing the small sighs as she completed her third apple, her fourth—I wondered what else Becky Nosbush would one day be able to accomplish. Surely this smooth dexterity, this steely calm, wouldn't be saved solely for pie-making. She could be a surgeon wielding a scalpel, a jet pilot at the controls, a bomb squad detonation disabler, a wild animal tamer.
Becky was on her fifth and final apple. It had all come down to this, like the final frame of a bowler's perfect game, a 300 score. Becky Nosbush nailed it. And as she set the last of her peeled, white-fleshed Rome Beauties down on the table, aligned in one even row, she raised her eyes for a moment and looked out at us, her enraptured audience, with a small smile of triumph. And although it felt as if the contest was over, the winner decided, there were still pies to be made.
As I watched her—sensing the hushed expectancy of the audience, hearing the small sighs as she completed her third apple, her fourth—I wondered what else Becky Nosbush would one day be able to accomplish.
Through it all the room remained quiet, as Silent Pie must be, but for those rustlings and exhalations among the observers. I felt a momentary urge to applaud at the end of Becky's peeling performance, even to let out a whoop at her quiet victory, but I stayed still, as did we all, as one might do in church after a particularly well-sung solo from the choir loft.
As I watched Becky expertly roll out her pie dough, I noticed she had dressed like me for the contest: neat cotton dress, white collar, knee socks. She wore glasses, same as I did, although her hair was cut short, as tidy and unstylish as a librarian or a Sunday School teacher. Becky may have been the most exquisite peeler of Rome Beauties ever, but she herself was no beauty. Her last name, Nosbush, only reminded you every time you heard it of her unfortunately large nose. And beneath it, her prominent overbite, with two extra large front teeth like pieces of ivory hanging over her red lower lip, shiny with saliva, the white and the red of her mouth echoing the color of apples. None of this mattered to me, however—or maybe it did in a way. Becky's plain features allowed me to accept her pie-making prowess willingly, even gladly. If she had been as beautiful to look at as she was at peeling an apple, I might have hated her. At least, I would have been too jealous to rejoice in her triumph. Still, I felt a twinge when I thought of going back to shape my loaf for Silent Bread where, I knew now for certain, I would have to go head to head against Becky.
After the Senior Pie girls had rolled and cut and filled and crimped, they showed their handiwork to the judge (a different woman than the one for Silent Bread) before taking their pies to the kitchen to bake in the huge commercial ovens of the school cafeteria. It was time to put my headband back on and get back to my own contest.
Shaping the loaf was my weak spot. The year before, my bread had come out with that weird wiggle in the middle, and truth be told, almost all my practice loaves that summer had turned out the same way. I don't know what I was doing wrong, but somehow every time I rolled out the dough I let the rectangle get too big for the pan. It looked alright at first, but once I'd rolled it into a cylinder and tucked and sealed the ends, it stretched out and got a little too long and skinny. Sure, once it rose it filled out and baked up just fine, at least for an everyday loaf to use for sandwiches or supper. But it wouldn't look perfect enough for the judge, with that smooth, even curvature it would need to win. And it was perfection I would have to achieve if I wanted to beat Becky Nosbush.
I resumed my place at the contest table, pastry cloth and stockinette-covered rolling pin at the ready, my loaf pan greased, and the soft, warm bread dough risen high, smelling of yeast under the green and white tea towel. But I'd lost my confidence after watching Becky make pie. Although I couldn't see her well from my spot at the table, now I knew she was there, and while I tried not to think about her, I couldn't seem to focus on the task at hand. I floured the pastry cloth and stockinette and punched down my risen dough, feeling the bubbles popping, yielding beneath the knuckles of my fist, as I gathered it up and rounded it into a ball to roll out and shape.
I was mechanical in my motions, as Becky had been while peeling, but not smooth and perfect like her. Instead, I shaped my loaf the way I'd done every other loaf I'd made all summer, and to my horror I realized it was going to turn out just like all of those loaves had—too long, with that crazy wiggle in the middle that felt like my signature, a personal stamp I put on every loaf of bread I turned out—an inchworm wiggle, an S-curve shimmy like the hip roll of a belly dancer. Perhaps an appealing flourish under the right circumstances, but the kiss of death for Silent Bread. I tried to shorten up the loaf even as I saw the inevitable happening, by patting it on the ends, trying to plump up the middle, fatten it, before placing it upside down in the greased pan, shaking slightly, then tipping the loaf onto my forearm and laying it right side up again in the pan, top surface gleaming with a light coating of fat. I stared down at that shimmy in the loaf's midsection with dismay, which I tried to conceal under a neutral expression, as if everything was just as it should be. I covered the pan with the dishtowel again and carried it over to the judge for her inspection. She had seemed to like me so well up until now; maybe the crooked loaf wouldn't matter as much as I feared. But when I raised the towel and held the loaf in front of her face, she frowned a little, her chin lowering once in a curt nod, and I saw her take up her pen to write a note on the judging sheet. Not good. I grimaced as I trudged back into the kitchen with my bread.
Esther was there, her ever-persistent smile greeting me. "Let's see then what you did," she said as she pulled back the towel. She, too, frowned for a second when she saw it, just a slight deepening of the crease between her eyebrows. "Oh, ach, tain't nothing," she said. "It's just a bit crook'd, is all." And with that her hands came to the loaf and she worked them over the dough, in a single deft motion that looked like some kind of magic act to me, a magician waving a wand over a hat. So quickly, it was done in an instant, and when she pulled her hands away, my loaf was straight and true. "There now," Esther said. "All better. Good job, Katty. You go wash up your t'ings now and I'll set this to rise."
I blinked. How had she done that? And why couldn't I do it like that? The other girls were milling around the kitchen with their loaf pans, some with their mothers hovering over them, but I didn't see any of them reshaping their loaves. I didn't think it was really wrong, what Esther had done to help me, but I wished she hadn’t. I thought the point of the contest was for me to make my loaf completely by myself. Not have a little help when I took it back to the kitchen. I pledge my head to clearer thinking, the words of the 4-H pledge popped into my brain. But I couldn't seem to think at all clearly about what had just happened. My heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger service, my health to better living. Cheating wasn't even mentioned, but I felt sure that for a 4-H'er it was an unspoken expectation. Participate, I heard Esther's voice in my mind. Win, said my mother's.
But it was over and done and I couldn't go back and undo it. Would it really matter that much in the end? Esther had only touched it for the briefest moment; she'd barely waved her hands over it. It couldn't mean that much to the final result, could it?
Participate, I heard Esther's voice in my mind. Win, said my mother's.
It could, and it did, but I didn't find that out until later. While the loaves were rising, I went back to see the final judging for Silent Pie. The pies had emerged from the oven and were now cool enough for the judge to cut and sample a tiny bite of each one, making notes on her judging sheet as she went along. When she finally cleared her throat to break the silence and announce the results, it was no surprise to anyone that Becky Nosbush had won. Becky blushed as she shook the judge's hand, a becoming modesty that caused me to join in the applause without jealousy or reservation. Afterward, I went back to the kitchen to check on how my loaf was rising. It was fine, still straight-edged and pure, so much so that I barely recognized it as my own until I rechecked the number: lucky 21. Yes, it was mine. The loaves were nearly ready to bake; within the hour I would know my fate.
My bread came out perfectly. Esther watched as I tipped it out of the pan and onto a cooling rack. The loaf was deep brown and even, billowing up from its light brown sides just the right amount, its rounded top like the curve of a pioneer's covered wagon. There was no trace of a wiggle. "Ach, yah, it's good, Katty," Esther said, patting my arm. She flicked her forefinger against the crust, listening for that hollow thump that said all was well on the inside, too.
Once the loaves cooled it was time for the judging, the last contest of the day to be decided. We bakers took our places around the table, nothing for us to do now but stand there in our accustomed silence and watch. The judge, a serrated bread knife in hand, cut through the exact middle of each loaf to examine its crumb—whether it was fine-textured and even—and the size of the air pockets. The worst thing that could happen was if there was a particularly large air bubble or even an empty, arching space between crust and center where the loaf had not been rolled tightly enough. There were always a few of those every year, and when the judge sliced through a loaf and revealed its interior, the onlookers either oohed and aahed over its evenness, or groaned in unison if a dreaded air pocket appeared. When the judge came to my loaf, she first examined the exterior, making some notes, and then cut it open. The audience aahed to see the pure white interior, its fine crumb and uniform texture. The same thing happened when Becky's loaf came up for judging; our two loaves looked identical in their perfection.
At last the judge stood, tapping her pen on her notepad as she prepared to pronounce the winner. Third place went to a girl I didn't know very well, Lynn Wetzel from the Danube Full-O-Pep club. She was the same age as me, also in her first year competing in the senior division. I'd have to watch out for her next time around. Then second place; I heard the judge say my name. So Becky Nosbush would be first here as well, I knew immediately. She would sweep Silent Bread and Pie this year.
"This loaf is excellent in every way," the judge was saying, pointing to mine. "Texture, crumb, height, browning, shape. In fact, its shape came out much better than I thought it would once it had risen and baked." She looked at me over her glasses as if she knew what had happened in the kitchen, that magical adjustment Esther had made to my loaf. But I felt no reproach from the judge.
Then she pronounced Becky Nosbush the winner and explained what we all could clearly see about the virtuosity of Becky's bread-baking. The result was fair and just; I felt happy for Becky because she deserved to win. And I was pleased to come in second after not placing at all the year before. It wouldn't be good enough for my mother, I knew, but I was happy to be second, maybe even happier than if I had won. Because then I would have had to consider whether what I'd done—what I'd allowed to happen—had been cheating.
Esther didn't seem to think so. She didn't even mention it on the drive home, except to say that next year we'd have some practice sessions at her house before the contest, work on shaping loaves together. "We'll get t'other girls in the club to come, too," she said. "Julie and Wendy and all them, they should participate like you. And bring your little sister along, it's high time she gets started. Pie is easy when you're a junior, she can do that. Maybe you can do Silent Pie next year, too. Yah, I'm sure you can do it."
Maybe Silent Bread, I thought, but not Pie. Not as long as Becky Nosbush was around and peeling apples like a goddess. I'd never match her, and I'd never win. But maybe I could participate, at least. Winning wasn't everything. Not to Esther, certainly, and not to me, not anymore.
Something changed in me that day, riding home in Esther's old Billy, looking out the window at the corn and bean fields as I thought it all over. I didn't feel like I'd cheated, but I had let something happen that shouldn't have happened. And even though I hadn't won outright, I still had come in second, which was Lynn Wetzel's rightful place. Maybe I wouldn't have even placed in the top three at all without Esther's kitchen intervention. But I didn't feel like Esther had cheated, either: she was only trying to help me. I looked over at her as she drove—not speeding anymore but still full of determination—and pictured her again seated at the church organ with her heavy black shoe pressed firmly down on the wrong pedal, holding that dissonance for its full measure. And I knew for a fact: Esther Kurth would never, ever cheat. Still, she must have seen how much I wanted to win, with all my nervous clock-watching and card-checking and hair-smoothing. But did Esther know the prize I was really after, the one I most hoped to win by placing first in Silent Bread?
My mother thought winning was all that mattered, and all her tips and tricks—the carefully-chosen outfit, the old- fashioned headband, the preferred place to stand, the green-and-white towel—felt devious to me, trying to curry favor with the judge. It felt more like cheating than when I'd watched Esther's hands reshape my loaf, making it straight. I would compete in Silent Bread next year, I decided, but without my mother's strategies. I would practice with Esther in her kitchen until I learned how to use my hands the way she could, that particular magic of hers that I would get her to teach me, until one day I could do it for myself.
I dreaded going home to face the question I knew Mom would ask when I walked in the door: "Well? How'd you do?" Second place was better than not placing at all, but it would not be enough, like getting a single B+ on a report card otherwise bulging with As. "Why'd you get that B+?" she'd always say. She was only trying to help me, too, like Esther, but in a different way. She just wanted me to excel. And every time I fell short, I vowed to do better the next time.
But things had changed by the following summer, in ways big and small, both in 4-H and in my family. Mom decided my sister, Patty, and I stood a better chance of winning a trip to the State Fair if we did demonstrations instead, so we wrote up our presentations and drew out posters and made felt-board cutouts. We practiced all summer until our deliveries were as polished as any pitchman's pushing juicers in a Grandstand booth. Both Patty and I won our trips. My demonstration was on how to dress to flatter your figure; much of it hinged on whether to choose large or small patterns, horizontal or vertical stripes, bright colors or pastels. My sister demonstrated how to set a formal table, with linens, centerpieces, the correct placement of flatware and stemware. All things we never did at home, no matter the occasion. Even today, decades later, when setting my own table, I still hear Patty's fervent voice in my head: "And never, ever light candles in the daytime!" And I never have. But I do, these days, wear horizontal stripes with abandon.
There were other things I never did after that summer: I never returned to Silent Bread to compete. I never achieved Esther Kurth's magical touch when shaping a loaf of bread, or Becky Nosbush's mastery over peeling an apple, or even my mother’s talent for working the angles and piling up the contest wins. Maybe the biggest thing I never learned was how to gain the approval of the judge I most cared about, the one I most wanted to win over. I tried to be perfect, as did she for so many years, but in the end neither of us could keep up the effort.
Second place was better than not placing at all, but it would not be enough, like getting a single B+ on a report card otherwise bulging with As.
These days I call myself a recovering perfectionist. I still make bread, although I don't follow the 4-H recipe. I've gotten away from most of the 4-H rules for baking, actually, although I still "curtsy to the cup" when I measure liquids, kneeling deeply as if a judge still watches, even when I'm alone in my kitchen. Every time I shape a loaf it comes out with that same S-curve that I now embrace as my personal signature, because in the end it does not affect how good the bread tastes, not even a little. Whenever I peel an apple I try to be like Becky, but I always fail. My hand falters when I'm halfway through, the peeler slips and severs the spiraling apple skin. And although this, too, doesn't really bother me, I wonder why I can't entirely give up on my hope for perfection when I'm just starting out on a task. And these thoughts naturally lead to my mother—her expectations, her disappointments—my constant judge, the queen I curtsy to, even these many years later, long after her death.
When I set out to bake these days, there might be music playing in my kitchen, and I might be singing along loudly, maybe to a song by someone I listened to back in my Silent Bread days, Aretha Franklin or Carole King. I might whistle or hum or talk to myself as I measure and mix. But when I begin to knead the dough I lapse into silence, that reverie I learned when I was young. And it is then, in that silent practice, that I will think of them, of Becky, and Esther, and especially, my mother. And this, perhaps, is why 4-H girls once learned to make bread and pie in silence: to someday show us the way back to our memories of those who shaped us, the ones we watched so closely. The women to whom we pledged our heads, our hands, our hearts.
Katherine Schaefer is an emerging writer working primarily in creative nonfiction. Her essay "Edna, With Her Mouth" recently won the 2016 Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize and is forthcoming in Hunger Mountain. Her writing also has appeared in The Talking Stick and Minnetonka Review, and has received grants and awards from the Minnesota State Arts Board, Key West Literary Seminar, and Brainerd Writers' Alliance.