BLUE RIBBON by Mollie Ficek
Cecelia stole it. It was my Sour Cream Raspberry Ripple Cake recipe and she walked away with the win. I normally wouldn’t make such a fuss. I’m not one to complain or point fingers. But in this case, I can’t keep quiet. I just can’t shut my big mouth. That blue ribbon means my winning recipe is going to the Minnesota State Fair, and going without me. That ribbon, and all that came with it, should have been mine and mine alone.
Let me tell you a thing or two about Cecelia Bentz. She was my best friend for twenty-two years so I think I can speak freely. Cecelia Bentz is no baker. She can cook a very nice Thanksgiving dinner—turkey, potatoes, the whole nine yards. Sure, she can cook, but she cannot bake. Cecelia uses all-purpose flour for almost everything and pre-made mixes for everything else. Once I began to bake, I asked her kindly to make the sides. Leave the desserts to me, dear. And up until one week ago, she did.
What makes her deceit so hard to swallow is that Cecelia was my only rock in the whole world when Roger died this winter. She was at our home when his heart gave out, and lucky, too, because I was away for a few hours, bargain shopping at the outlet mall. Later in the hospital, when his heart beat fast, trying to recover, she stayed right by my side, right by his bed, the whole time. She took the rotating shift at night to let me sleep. When I needed black coffee from the cafeteria or a hot shower at home, she stayed with Roger until I returned, never leaving him alone, not for one minute. She was such a true, kind friend.
“He likes it when you hold his hand,” she said and took his left, smoothing the frail skin with her fingers.
“He does,” I said. On my side of the bed, an IV pierced the top of his hand. I rubbed his forearm, slowly smoothing the black hair.
When it was time, when my Roger passed out of this world and his soul took up communion with the angels in heaven, she sobbed and I sobbed and we held onto each other there in the hospital room.
Cecelia’s the only reason I got through all of that. I’m still getting through.
This whole horrible ordeal with the recipe happened a week ago at the Cyrus County Fair. The fair has been a constant in this part of the state for over one-hundred and twenty-two years. I am proud to say that I have attended thirty-seven of those years and my Roger, thirty-six.
Roger was a man of many passions. In the beginning, he was interested in classic cars. He spent hours with them, admiring long lines of buffed pick-ups and shiny convertibles. I’d often find him under the hood, studying the parts that made them hum. If it wasn’t there, I’d catch him in line, waiting on some kind of sugar. He had an insatiable sweet tooth. I liked the corndogs, myself. But not Roger. He ate funnel cakes and elephant ears and any color of snow cone. He ate roasted almonds and honeyed fruit and miles and miles of pink cotton candy.
A few years after the car shows, Roger took up the banjo and put together a small band. They played on the bandstand, which in those days was more like a houseless porch than a stage. They played for four nights in a row, and it was crowded each and every night. Another year he decided to buy an old junker. He tore the doors off, gave it a spray with cheap green paint, and entered himself into the demolition derby. I was less than pleased, saying Hail Mary’s in the stands while I balanced two babies on my knees, trying to soothe them during the crashes and the cheering. He didn’t win but he didn’t hurt himself either, thank the Lord.
When the kids were older, we took them to the Midway. They twirled in fat strawberries until they were almost sick, then ran over to the dragon trains for a quick bounce up and down along the track. The two were terrified by the ghosts inside the haunted houses, but they walked through them over and over again. The Midway isn’t what it used to be, I’m disappointed to say. After I accepted my red ribbon this year (or I should say, after I was denied the blue), I found myself wandering around the fair in a sort of daze, seeing everything differently. The rides looked worn, used. They had chipped paint and stiff gear shifts. They were all plugged in, with enormous hose-like extension cords, to small electrical boxes throughout the fairgrounds that sat in puddles of mud.
I walked home through the cemetery and stopped to visit Roger’s grave. It was the brightest one in the whole yard, newly planted. There was a small splay of red flowers on the stone, no doubt from a close friend. Roger was loved by everyone, but no one as much as me. I left a snow-cone there that matched the flowers. His favorite flavor—cherry. I walked away before I could see it melt.
I loved the fair but never cared much for rides, so when Roger and the kids were off spending our summer allowance zipping and zapping around the place, I would sit on a straw bale outside the Midway or on an empty bench under the bingo tent, and watch people. That was always my favorite thing. You learn so much about people just by watching them. An otherwise miserly old man will give his granddaughter ten dollars just for a funnel cake and fries. A frazzled mother will finally find peace as her children wait in line after line after line. A young couple will take each other’s hand, but not before looking around to make sure no one else is watching. I could sit and watch for hours. And for many summers, I did just that.
This was all long before I had any idea that the kitchen could be an enjoyable place, one not just for mashing potatoes and washing dishes. I remember the first time I tried to bake a pie, when Roger’s mother came to visit. It was a disaster. A right disaster. Imagine this: mother-in-law and my bawling new baby rushing into the street while the whole kitchen is thick with black smoke. And me, trying to fight it off with a dish rag, burning my eyes out. A wet, sopping mess. I know now that I misread the baking temperature and my pie boiled over. Much over.
Roger didn’t encourage much baking after that, bless his heart. He learned to satisfy that sweet-tooth somewhere else. He came home with a box of doughnuts or a sweet pie or cookies by the bakers dozen.
It wasn’t until about ten or so years ago that I took another swing at it. I wanted a hobby. Roger had yet another one, cross-stitch this time. He sat in the living room, bent over the tiny needle and thread, wearing his reading glasses—the ones that made me smile every time he put them on because they were purple and made him look so young and so handsome. He stitched each little ‘x’ perfectly. He had patience like a saint. I was better with trial and error. I think that’s why, when it came, baking came so naturally.
I began with cookies. These were simple because you could burn a whole batch and still have something more to work with. Fool proof. After mastering cookies, I tried pies again. In the summertime, northern Minnesota overflows with berries. Blackberries are my favorite, and raspberries. The pies went well. And when one boiled over and black smoke started to rise out of the stove, I didn’t panic like I had done when I was younger. I simply asked Roger to please stop sewing and take the batteries out of the fire alarm and open a window.
I made bars, too, the staple of any picnic or potluck. I was quite inventive. Spiced Pumpkin Praline Bars in the fall. Sweet and Sassy Lemon Bars in the summer. Orange Blossom and Lavender-Scented Cheesecakes in the spring. Double-Fudge Devil Brownies in the winter.
People said, Oh Ellen, these date bars are divine, and These lemon drop cookies are better than anything my grandmother ever made, and This angel food cake makes me feel like I’ve died and gone right straight up to heaven. I always smiled and thanked them. It is important to be humble, especially when one knows she has a gift.
At Easter one year, after eating my Christ is Risen Coconut Cake, my Baptist cousin Mindy suggested that I share my God-given talent by entering into a competition. At first, I thought, No, I couldn’t possibly. Then I asked Roger, and he said, Do it. So I did. Roger got sick that spring, but he was still a great sport. He tried eleven different kinds of bars, small portions, of course (careful of his heart), before I settled on the one I would enter. I remember it to this day. Chocolate Potato Chip Jumblers. A fat brownie bottom with a creamy peanut butter middle and chocolate-covered potato chips crunched on top. The judges loved it. I won first place.
I’ve won plenty of blue ribbons since then. Let me make it clear, once again, that this whole thing isn’t about the ribbons or the title. Or the fact that the winning cake this year from the Cyrus County Fair is entered not only into competition at the Minnesota State Fair, but also has the chance to launch the baker onto a segment of a weekday edition of “Morning Brew with Mark and Emiline,” the most popular morning talk show out of Minneapolis. It isn’t about any of the prizes or the prestige. It is about honesty and truthfulness and what is good in the world. It is about being straight and owning up to one’s wrong-doings, one’s lies, one’s deceits. It is about my cake.
Last summer I entered my Sauerkraut Surprise Cake in the competition. I was hesitant at first, but Roger convinced me. His new thing was Pilates and he stretched and curved his spine into a “u” and said, Do it. The sauerkraut is meant to be a novelty, you see, something to tickle the eater’s imagination. You can’t actually taste it. The judges thought it was clever and delicious and gave me a red ribbon, second place. Adeline Sumner won the blue with the same German Chocolate Cake she had entered for the last five years. I heard someone say she won first because she had severe pneumonia and wouldn’t last through the winter (which she didn’t) but I paid no mind to those rumors, nor did I spread them along. I do not approve of gossip—it’s just secrets spread around and around in mean little circles.
This year, though, I was sure I’d found it. The winning recipe, the perfect dessert. Chocolate Peanut Butter Swirl Pound Cake. Rich. Delicious. Baked to perfection. An easy win. Had it not been for Cecelia’s stolen dessert, my cake would have shown supreme.
The Sour Cream Raspberry Ripple Cake was one I tried on Roger a year ago. He loved it. I remember watching him take the first bite, licking homemade raspberry jam from the fork. He asked me to make it again the next week. And I did. I made it for one month straight, anything he wanted, then, when he wasn’t feeling well. After that, I didn’t bake it again until the funeral.
The night before Roger’s funeral, the house was full and all asleep with family and friends from out of town. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t spend one more minute lying in my bed alone. So I went to the kitchen. My hands moved as if from memory, pulling the flour and the sugar and the baking soda out of the cupboards, sifting and measuring and cutting cubes of butter. I made that cake from memory alone. And I believe Roger was there, beside me, helping me get it right, just how he liked it. When I drew it out of the oven, golden brown, perfectly risen, I began again. I mixed another batch and then another. I must have pulled three more out of the oven when I was startled. It was Cecelia, in the door of my kitchen. It was 4:15 am.
“You’re already awake,” she said.
“How long have you been there?”
“What are you doing, Ellen?”
I looked around my kitchen.
“It was his favorite,” I said, and then sobbed into the batter.
Cecelia stood firm in the doorway. I kept mixing, and I was crying, too, faster and faster. The fourth cake was overcooking in the oven. I could smell it.
“Stop it,” she said.
Then louder. “Stop it.” Again.
And just like that, he wasn’t there anymore with me, Roger, his spirit. It was as if he had simply gotten up and left out the door into the early morning. I stopped stirring.
“He’s gone,” I said.
Cecelia’s eyes filled. She came out of the doorway and hugged me, so tight, as if I would fall down to the floor if she let me go. When I finally pulled the last cake out of the oven, it was black in the pan.
Cecelia was there for me again, early this summer when I felt the clutter of the house pressing in on me, and I asked her to come over and help me get rid of some things.
“What should I do with his crossword puzzles?” she asked, and handled them gently.
“Don’t you do it, dear? Any patterns you like, just go ahead and grab.”
“His Pilates tapes?”
“Take ‘em if you want, or get rid of them.”
“The pressure cooker?”
“You’re much better with jams and jellies than me, it’s all yours.”
Cecelia made small piles around the room. She worked slowly. I could see she was still upset for me, the way her eyes watered.
She held up his eyeglasses. Those special purple spectacles.
“Those I need,” I said. “Those I’ll keep.”
I held them in my hand for a long time before setting back to work.
“What about the miniature tractor and trailer made of green spray-painted nuts and bolts?” she said.
I snapped my head back over a heaping stack of Sunday papers and cocked an eyebrow. We laughed and laughed together amidst the piles of Roger’s things.
We met last Wednesday for coffee, Cecelia and I, like every Wednesday since we became friends. I was telling her all about my Peanut Butter Swirl Cake when she ran out of coffee filters and walked down to the grocer for more. While she was gone, I decided to make myself useful, folding some laundry and washing up a few dishes. When I was putting away the crystal, I found a pair of glasses sitting in a small bowl in a tall cupboard. I nearly crushed them with the gravy boat. When I took a closer look, I saw that they were Roger’s. The same silly purple frames. I was so happy to find them. I thought they were lost. I had cried for two whole hours on the floor of my bedroom thinking about them being gone.
When Cecelia came home, I told her how I found them bunched in with some dishes, accidently packed away with the canning supplies from earlier that summer. I hugged and thanked her, with a happy tear still in my eye. We didn’t get to have coffee after all that morning. Cecelia didn’t feel well once she got back from the store. I fixed her some tea and filled up a hot water bottle. I tucked Roger’s glasses into a pocket in my purse and went home.
We haven’t spoken about the cake incident. She hasn’t called to apologize. I’m not about to make the first move. I am too upset. Hurt, really. I suppose she’ll say she forgot it wasn’t hers, even though it was written on a card that said, “From the Kitchen of Mrs. Roger Ellroy.” Last time I checked, that was me.
I have spoken with Cecelia twice though, since the fair. Not by choice, but by the good Lord’s will and intervention. We belong to the same prayer chain. The first time she called about a prayer for Mrs. Baker, the diabetic. She tried to get me to say something, explain why it was I hadn’t called, hadn’t accused, hadn’t asked her for an answer.
“What did I do?” Cecelia pleaded over the phone. “Tell me, Ellen! Tell me what I have done?”
I just kept right on with my Hail Mary’s. I prayed extra loudly. The prayer chain is no place for that conversation. The second time she called—when Timothy Niles broke his leg jumping off a wet trampoline—it was much colder. We said our prayers and hung up like we didn’t even know each other, like we had picked up the phone for a wrong number, an unfamiliar voice down a long distance line.
It doesn’t make me happy to say these things, to tell what I know, and say what I’m saying. Cecelia was my friend, my real true best friend. And to me, that means something. I can’t shut up, not this time, can’t allow her to get away with taking something that doesn’t belong to her. I can’t just allow her to parade around as if it were hers, as if I had never been there, behind the whole thing, all along. That recipe was mine. It was mine, you can see that now.