By JAY REED
One of the most challenging things about judging food contests is balance, and that plays out in at least two different ways.
First, there is the question for the judge of, “How much of this do I need to taste in order to judge fairly without being too full by the time I taste the last dish?” In a couple of contests, I have been very careful to take just enough. The only problem with that idea is that I end up leaving a food event hungry. Not the ideal plan. Other times, I’ve adopted a Katie-bar-the-door attitude, eaten as much as I wanted, then gone back for more, leaving me to waddle miserably out of the venue. This week, I was privileged to be a part of the Vardaman Sweet Potato Festival cooking contest and I faced this dilemma again.
The second question of balance has more to do with the focus ingredient. I have watched enough episodes of Chopped and Iron Chef America to learn that the ingredients in the basket or under the canopy need to be the star of the dish, not just make an appearance. This is a bit tricky, and puts the onus more on the contestant.
I’m glad I was a judge.
The winner of the whole shebang, recipient of the Mayor’s Cup, was Jan Cook for her Slap Your Moma Sweet Potato Muffins. There was just enough sweet potato taste in these muffins to know it was there without overwhelming the other ingredients, and they were topped with chocolate chips and chopped Butterfinger candy bars. Since we’re already using parental nomenclature, I think it’s fair to say that these were also “Big Daddy” muffins. Meal-sized muffins.
And I have a question, come to think of it. Why are there so many recipes that are “Slap yo’ Mama” good? What did Mama do? You never see any “Slap yo’ Daddy” steaks or “Slap yo’ Mother-in-Law” tomato aspic recipes. (Nor am I suggesting that any mother-in-laws get slapped, no matter how good the aspic. I’m just inquisitive).
I noticed on the way to Vardaman I passed through Pyland, Mississippi.
Too bad Hot Coffee is so far away — I like my pie and hot coffee together. But I digress.
I think variations on sweet potato pie were probably the largest proportion of dishes entered in the contest, so one might say (if one were desperate for a laugh), that the contest was truly Pie-Land. The winner of the pie category was Shirley Riley with her Sweet Potato Granola Pie, one of my favorites of the day.
The crunchy granola added a great texture contrast with the creamy sweet potato filling. Somehow, a pie also made it into the miscellaneous dessert category, and unless there are two Shirley Riley’s in Vardaman, she won this one, too, with her Dulce de Leche Sweet Potato Crème Pie.
Over in Cake-Land (somebody stop me) the winner was Peggy Whiteside’s Sweet Potato Strawberry Chocolate Cake, one of the most elegant looking cakes I have ever had the pleasure of cutting. It was a chocolate cake with chocolate icing and thinly sliced strawberries added between the layers. This was one of the unique entries that actually used a good proportion of sweet potato in the cake batter — making it moist and kicking up the nutritional value — without necessarily adding sweet potato taste.
And it was pretty sinful looking for a healthy dessert, but hey — you dance with who brung ya’.
Another healthy winner, in the low-cal category, was Marianne Caradine for her Simply Delicious Cheesecake Bars. That’s a real trick, to make cheesecake low-cal. Apparently sweet potatoes are not just nutritious — they’re magic. The men of the area had their own category as well, and Joe Goforth took that first place prize with his Sweet Potato Spice Frosted Snack Bars. Go men.
Peggy Whiteside took another prize in the miscellaneous dessert class with her Caramel Sweet Potato Bread Pudding. Yes, it was as good as it sounds. I can see that happening in my kitchen sometime during the holidays.
Naturally, many of the entries were sweets — this orange root didn’t get the name sweet potato because it was especially nice to its grandmother.
There were cakes: apple-spice, pound, and lemon-coconut.
There were pies with pecans, pies with chocolate chips and pies with streusel.
There was a larger-than-life cheesecake and a walnut crème-filled roll. (Are you wishing you had come yet? We’re not done).
Sweet potato parfait? Check. Chocolate chip cookies with frosting? Check. Cobbler? Check. Chocolate-peanut candy sandwich with caramel and sweet potato filling? Of course.
Among all the sweet dishes, a few very tasty savory bites appeared as well. If I were watching a ballgame, I would have been content to have at my right hand, the Sweet Potato Cheese Bake (topped with bacon and Captain Rodney’s glaze), on my left the Mississippi Sweet Potato Sin, and somewhere within reach the Low-Fat Sweet Potato Dip. And to wash it all down, I’ll take the Sweet Potato Smoothie in my red Solo cup, thank you very much.
This was not my first trip to Vardaman, but it was my first trip to the Sweet Potato Festival. I don’t know what took me so long to get there, but you can bet it won’t be as long before I get back.
In the meantime, forget balance — just get some Vardaman Sweet Potatoes and start cooking.
Jay Reed is a local foodie and pharmacist. The culinary tastes expressed here are his and do not necessarily reflect the appetites of the Starkville Daily News or individual members of its staff. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org .