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[whitespace] The Wide-Eyed Gourmet

Old-Fashioned Can-Do

By Marina Wolf

IN ALL THE HOO-HA about finally tasting Kansas City barbecue (see last week's column), I was in danger of forgetting my whole reason for going there in the first place: the World Championship of Canning, sponsored by Grit magazine. I had sent away for a sample issue and received the one in which they were promoting the championship and soliciting essay entries. Three winning essayists would be flown, all expenses paid, for three days in Topeka, where the magazine's headquarters are located. There the winners would act as the judging panel for the canning contest.

My mind, it makes great leaps sometimes. I saw the word Kansas, flashed onto

Calvin Trillin's effusions on the subject of Kansas City (Missouri) barbecue, and entered the contest without thinking twice. Three months later I found myself sitting at a table with 57 assorted jars of preserved foods. With me were the other winners, the dignified old man from Texas who had canned food with his late wife; and the girl from Ohio who made her own goat cheese from her herd of goats and was so into historical re-creation that she wore a mobcap and looked as though she shouldn't have even believed in airplanes, let alone have boarded one.

You know how a spectrum is really a circle, and the further apart you go, the closer you are to meeting on the other side, like feminists and Bible-thumpers on the subject of pornography? So it was with us judges. I admit I confronted some stereotypes during this contest.

I THOUGHT that America's heartland boiled its food to death, but listening to my esteemed colleagues on the panel debate about green beans for 10 minutes, I soon learned otherwise.

I mean, I was from California Fresh; the other two were all about homegrown ingredients and down-home country cooking. But if you follow our convictions around to their logical extremes, we met at the inevitable conclusion: flavor and texture are all that count.

Together we rivaled any food reviewer in the country for focus, finickiness, and overall attitude. We sucked air and smacked our lips and took vicious pleasure in ripping to shreds the truly horrid entries: the absurd bread-and-butter pickled jalapeños that weren't even hot (what's the point?), the fruit cocktail with the twice-cooked peach segments (buy a can and save yourself the trouble), the jellies that quivered in pallid pools of their own perspiration (like ladies, truly refined jellies don't sweat).

We shared outrage at the entries that included canned items in the recipes--tomato soup in the vegetable soup, cranberry sauce in the black-pepper cranberry salsa.

Oh, we had our differences, but they weren't the ones I expected. The faux Amish girl had a peculiar taste for items that had been flavored with Cinnamon Red-Hots, which I felt she, if anyone, should recognize as an abomination unto the Lord. The Texas gentleman was taciturn but firm on the subject of the otherwise outstanding blackberry jam whose prominent seeds knocked it out of the running, in his polite opinion.

I fought in vain for recognition of the nuances in the summer pears, a carefully arranged jar of creamy-white pears that had been touched with a whiff of almond extract. They turned out to be way too subtle for my companions--"They're kind of quirky," said the girl diplomatically, while the Texan grunted something about them being "too soft."

Now, I could have taken those comments personally, but in the interest of furthering cross-cultural communications, I subsided and let the Cinnamon Red-Hot pears win in the fruit category. Hey, I'd had my barbecue.

My duty here was done.

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From the October 19-25, 2000 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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