Confession, like chicken soup—or in this case, mushroom and barley soup—is good for the soul. And I’m not talking about just any old mushroom and barley soup. A bowl of this steamy soup is worth $1000.00. That’s the prize amount I won in 2002 in the “Healthy Living” category of the 5th Annual Recipe Cookoff sponsored by Bluefield Daily Telegraph and Kammer Furniture Company. But the process and prize didn’t come without revelation and a smidgen of guilt. Hence, my confessions.
Confession #1: I entered the contest, quite literally, to gain favor with my mother-in-law.
Some months earlier, my husband Randy, our three-year-old son Jacob, and I moved from North Carolina to Virginia to live temporarily with my mother-in-law Georgia, while we searched for a home. Randy and I wanted generativity for our young son, for him to know his relatives who lived in bordering counties in Virginia and West Virginia, and for him to grow up in the mountains as we had. We already had jobs lined up—at least until the week we moved in with his mother. The same week that we sold our house and unloaded moving trucks in another state, Randy learned the college that offered him the job we’d moved for was “restructuring,” and the job disappeared. Homeless, we extended our planned two-week stay with his mother for additional weeks that turned into many months as Randy sought work in a down economy in rural Appalachia.
Confession #2: Georgia and I were oil and vinegar. My mother-in-law’s generous heart and Southern hospitality allowed her to open her arms and home to us, though the living situation was less than ideal for any of us. An active, working senior with an independent streak as wide as Bluestone River, Georgia was—how shall I politely say this?—set in her ways. She liked an early bedtime, and I’m a night owl. She wanted dinner by 5:30, but 4:30 was better. She loved inspirational television, while (Confession #2.1) I have a perverse attraction to reality TV. At dusk, my mother-in-law required every bright light in the room turned on, banishing shadows and ambiance. Come morning, she wanted coffee so weak you could read the newspaper through it. She was a child of the Great Depression and frugal by nature, while I came of age in the extravagant eighties where everything was disposable and easily replaceable.
We were smart and generally agreeable women, so we sought commonalities to make our merged household more tolerable. We shared a mutual love for her son and mine, though our opinions differed on how each should be raised. We both worked in the medical field but held diverse roles in different specialties and cities. We loved to read, though she preferred biographies and Billy Graham, while I favored fiction and Flannery O’Connor.
One thing we always agreed on was food. We declared more butter made everything better and there’s nothing on the table that can’t be improved with a slathering of sauce, gravy, or cheese. Confession #3: Neither of us had to worry about being too skinny.
Soon we spent weekend mornings poring over her stack of church-lady cookbooks. We sat on opposite ends of the brightly lit family room and read recipes to each other from the box of mildewed copies of Southern Living I’d picked up for pennies at a nearby auction house. After lunch, I’d paw through her two large index-card boxes stuffed full of recipe cards, and we’d spread them on the kitchen counter, mixing and matching menus for our next week of feasts. She loved my cooking, and I loved hers. We agreed that mains and sides were my strengths, while baked goods and desserts were hers. Confession #4: We determined this division after the third or fourth time the two of us spent half an hour cleaning up the powdered sugar, or flour, or cocoa powder I’d inadvertently dusted across every surface of her tidy, snow-white kitchen.
Over well-spread breakfasts that nearly always included see-through coffee, halved bananas (“You need your potassium,” she’d say), and biscuits and jam, we’d pass around sections of the Bluefield Daily Telegraph, which she’d peruse, then pronounce, “Today’s a good day. I’m not in the obituaries.”
One Sunday morning, she folded the paper and jabbed a finger at an article as she passed it to me. “The Cookoff is coming. You ought to enter.”
I read the article outlining the rules—residents of Four Seasons Country (three counties in two states) may submit up to five recipes in any of five categories, which will be judged blind by a group of five food professionals and culinary educators. Each judge selects the top ten in their category, and those fifty cooks will be invited to present their dishes anonymously before the judges in a live cookoff. “I’m in, if you’re in,” I said, grinning at my mother-in-law.
She quickly shot me down. “I don’t have the patience for that. You enter. You do the cooking, and I’ll taste-test.” I shrugged. What else did I have to do?
That afternoon, we bandied about ideas for recipes I should enter. I didn’t know then that some of the contestants would submit pre-published recipes from Southern Living or Pampered Chef. I thought everything had to be original, and since that’s pretty much the way I cook anyhow, I went into full-on test-kitchen mode.
Confession #5: I can’t follow a recipe to save my soul. They’re merely suggestions of where I should begin to experiment—which may be why I made C’s in Chemistry 201.
Because we loved to cook and eat, Georgia and I often found ourselves dieting, which sometimes lasted from Monday breakfast through Monday lunch. We decided I’d do something for the “Healthy Living” category, in hopes of jump-starting svelte figures. Randy groused about that, so I offered to submit a recipe for the “Appetizer” category to appease him.
For the next week or so, I planned dishes and ingredient lists, and as I prepared the food in her tiny kitchen, Georgia and I took turns writing down the recipe drafts, scratching out and correcting changes as rapidly as I made them. Some recipes turned out quite good, while others were culinary catastrophes. I saw a photo of cranberry oatmeal cookies in a magazine and decided I could make a prize-worthy, healthier version that would also win points with my sugar-toothed hubby. The first batch turned out tasty but flat. “Needs more baking soda,” Georgia advised, crossing out the half-teaspoon I’d jotted on the card and marking “1 tsp” in her fine script.
“And baking powder,” I added. “Put us down for a half a teaspoon.” In truth, I only guestimated these measurements, a habit I learned from my own mother, a fantastic cook in her own right. Momma rarely follows a recipe, and when she shares recipes with me over the phone, she’ll give directions like, “Add a smidgen of paprika,” or “Drop in a dab of minced garlic.” It’s always the perfect amount, proven by the many blue ribbons she’s won for cooking that decorate her kitchen wall.
Georgia and I raised and lowered the oven temperature for the cookies. We sweetened one batch with applesauce and another with molasses. We tweaked and tinkered through multiple recipes over the course of a few days, while Randy sampled and rolled his eyes. “I think I hate cranberry oatmeal cookies,” he finally declared.
I, pencil and recipe card in hand, remained undaunted. I knew I could do better.
By the end of the second week, I’d settled on three recipes: “Mushroom and Barley Soup,” “Chewy Cranberry Oatmeal Cookies,” and the wings currently known as “Game Day Wings,” (because the NFL determined that The Game Which Shall Not Be Named Is Trademarked and should not be used in a recipe title by li’l ol’ me. True story.) I typed up my recipes, leaving off my name and address for blind judging, and mailed them to Bluefield Daily Telegraph.
Confessions #6 and #6.1: I forgot all about the contest, and I suck at math. Due largely in part to ongoing kitchen shenanigans with my newfound cooking partner Georgia, I completely forgot that I’d entered the contest, so it surprised me when I received notice some weeks later that all three of my submissions were selected as finalists. I did the math poorly, declaring that three recipes out of fifty meant I had at least an eighty-percent chance of winning. We celebrated those numbers with see-through coffee and butter-slathered, home-baked Nana Bread (so named by my young son, who proclaimed banana bread was named after his nana).
The day of the Cookoff arrived, and I woke during morning darkness to prepare cookies, wings, and soup. The night before, I’d marinated three dozen chicken wings, so they’d be ready for baking. I realized too late that baking hot wings in the same oven as cranberry oatmeal cookies would be disastrous to the flavor and aroma of both, but there simply wasn’t time to bake each separately. I woke Randy and attempted to bribe him into starting the charcoal hibachi outdoors (in thirty-six-degree misty rain, no less), so the wings could grill while the cookies baked. He grumbled, but when I threatened him with cranberry oatmeal cookies for breakfast, he grimaced and grabbed a bag of charcoal.
I hit my second snag of the morning when the bag of fresh cranberries I’d purchased weren’t as ripe as the ones I’d used when testing the cookie recipe. Georgia didn’t own a food processor, so I chopped the marble-hard cranberries, about a quarter cup at a time, using a hand chopper. These berries were ironclad. They were so hard that no matter how hard or fast I pushed the hand lever, the berries merely jumped around as they popped out from under the blades. After twenty minutes of pounding the life out of the little food chopper, the heel of my hand was bruised purplish, and I barely had enough chopped berries to complete the recipe. “This batch will have chunky cranberries,” I said. “Maybe it’ll taste better.” Actually, it did taste better, but it wasn’t better enough to win a prize.
By the time I started slicing carrots, onions, and mushrooms for the soup, I was already behind schedule. Georgia bustled around me, picking up onion skins I dropped, offering me a dish towel to mop up spilled broth, and corralling the loose, whole cranberries that had somehow found their way all over her kitchen floor. (See Confession #4.) “Are you going to make it?” she asked, pointing toward her kitchen clock.
I nodded but didn’t look up. My focus was honed on slicing baby carrots into equal-sized orange coins. And that’s the thing about making soup: it’s relaxing. There’s really not a whole lot you can do that’ll ruin a pot of soup. I mean, if you add too much salt, toss in a potato to absorb it, and throw out the potato before serving. If it’s too thin, add rice or barley for absorption. If it’s too thick, more water, broth, or milk will fix that. (See Confession #5.) It’s a very forgiving medium for kitchen artists, earning its title of “comfort food” in more ways than one.
Soon enough, the mushrooms and onions I sautéed released their water and began reabsorbing it. I scooped in handfuls of carrots and celery, added the spices, and gave it all a stir as steam curled its way to my face. The pungent aroma of onions and mushrooms became sweeter as the carrots and spices did their work. I poured in the broth, the barley, added some Tabasco for a kick, and then, adding a wish for good luck, I kissed a bay leaf and slid it into the broth.
“Soup’s on to simmer,” I announced. “I’m gonna grab a shower.”
I planned the night before to wear a lovely sleeveless dress topped by a cardigan and low-heeled pumps, doing my best to channel a new-millennium June Cleaver. I didn’t count on the sudden temperature drop that night, or the fact that I wouldn’t have time to pin up my hair. I decided loose, curly hair would be more charming anyway, and I pulled on a turtleneck sweater and jeans and hurried back to the kitchen. Now if you’re also “blessed” with curly hair, you know what happens to it when you stand over a hot oven while stirring a stockpot of simmering soup. My forehead popped sweat as my hair grew wilder, so as the clocked ticked closer to time for me to leave, I gave up on looking presentable and wiped my steaming brow on the sleeve of my sweater, grateful that I hadn’t found time to apply and smear makeup. “Thank God,” I said to Randy when he looked me over with a cock-eyed stare, “it’s not a beauty contest.”
The Cookoff was held at Kammer Furniture Company, and if that doesn’t sound ideal to you, well, you haven’t been to Kammer’s. They’d placed the judges at a table in a show-window facing the street, where contestants inside couldn’t see them, but passersby watched their reactions to the dishes they tasted. Inside the food-staging area, white caterer’s tablecloths covered long folding tables. Disposable plates, bowls, utensils, and napkins sat at one end, and contestants placed food on the tables one category at a time, with each cook being given a two-by-two-foot space to display their entry. Through a doorway was the contestant waiting area, filled with more tables, folding chairs, and swirling aromas—as well as a lovely selection of La-Z-Boys, Sealy Mattresses, and shining GE appliances. Paparazzi, a.k.a. the Bluefield Daily Telegraph photographer and a feature reporter, milled around us, shooting photos and taking interview quotes. The setup proved perfect.
After the judges critiqued each category, these five Great-and-Powerful-Oz-like masterminds disappeared behind the curtain into the showroom window to debate our fates, while the next category of dishes were arranged and displayed in the food-staging area. At first, the judges made us quite nervous, and we’d sit like church mice and quietly whisper, hoping one of us might overhear something one of them said. After they’d judged the second category, we were coming down off our competitive high and no longer cared. Once the judges cordoned off to deliberate, we were allowed to sample one another’s dishes and browse their adjacent recipes, and we did so like the stress-ravenous competitors we were, chattering all the while. “I’d never thought to use cilantro instead of oregano in pasta sauce,” and “What did you use to give it such a sweet, creamy texture? Don’t tell me that’s sour cream!”
Confession #7: I’m a notorious eavesdropper. While the “Appetizers” category was being judged, one of the other competitors pointed toward the door to where the judges sampled our food. The door stood open about six inches. She grinned and stepped near it, and like a good co-conspirator, I joined her. You’d have to pass that door on the way to the ladies’ room, so I figured if caught, I’d nonchalantly stroll toward the restroom. Brazenly, I peered around the corner at the perfect time to see one of the judges holding a white plastic saucer piled high with chicken-wing bones. My chicken-wing bones! He didn’t simply taste a wing and move along; he devoured a plateful! Just at that moment, someone from inside the room pushed the door shut, and it startled me so much that I nearly peed my pants. I felt fortunate to be near the ladies’ room.
By the time the judges finished the “Healthy Living” category in which my cookies and soup were entered, I was over the contest. I mean, really over it. Dinnertime had passed, I’d been up since the crack of dark, and I’d sampled enough food (some superb but some quite choke-worthy) that my distended stomach was disgusted with me.
Finally, Harry Kammer announced the contest was over. He congratulated us finalists, then said they’d announce the winners in Sunday’s edition of the Bluefield Daily Telegraph. Seriously? After all that work, I still didn’t know where I stood.
I returned to the food-staging room to gather my dishes, and as I stretched rubber bands across the lid of Georgia’s antique soup tureen, a man sidled up to me. I turned to see a starched white chef’s uniform embroidered in green: Executive Chef, The Greenbrier. The Greenbrier! West Virginia’s famous resort in which twenty-six American Presidents have slept and dined since its opening in 1917. The chef’s voice pulled my stare from his uniform’s well-known logo. “Is that your soup?”
I wasn’t sure if I should answer him. I didn’t want to disqualify myself, but I didn’t want to be rude. I settled for a nod.
“It was good,” he said, much too non-committally for my taste.
I beamed a smile at him. “Thank you.”
He pointed toward the carefully-typed copy of my recipe. “Would have been better if you’d made your own stock, instead of going with store-bought broth.” He shrugged and moved on before I had time to gut-punch him. Confession #8: I’m aggressive when I’m tired.
He hadn’t seen my tender, bruised hand or my sweaty forehead that morning. He hadn’t been the one panicking over how to cook three dozen chicken wings without enough oven space. He didn’t know how many batches of Chewy Cranberry Oatmeal Cookies my poor husband had been forced to taste-test. He didn’t care.
But of course, he knew, and he cared. He’d spent more than his fair share of time chopping and sweating in a sweltering kitchen, and the fact that he’d volunteered his time to judge our region’s largest contest proved that he cared. It was I who, feeling defeated, no longer cared.
Randy appeared with a box, and we loaded my dishes into our Jeep and drove back to his mother’s. She met me at the door, wringing her hands. “Did you win?”
“Don’t know. Won’t know until it comes out in the paper. But I doubt it. Executive Chef from The Greenbrier told me I should have made stock for the soup, instead of using broth.”
“Huh,” she said. “What does he know.”
I gasped. She grinned. We both started laughing. I laughed until tears filled my eyes. She’d said the most perfect thing, and I loved her for it.
We didn’t speak of the contest the rest of that week, but we continued cooking and playing with recipes, which had become our favorite means of communication. Food is love. Cooking is serving. Eating is passion. My mother-in-law and I loved one another deeply, and food was how we learned to show it.
Early Sunday morning—early as in 3:54 a.m. early—Georgia burst into our bedroom without even knocking, a large bird flapping in her hand. “Rhonda! You won! Wake up!”
Randy and I raised from dead sleep, and I squinted when he turned on the bedside lamp.
It wasn’t a bird, but Sunday’s edition of Bluefield Daily Telegraph that Georgia flapped at us. “You won the grand prize!”
There on the page was a large, full-color photograph of me wearing my Cookoff apron, damp curls plastered to my forehead, beneath the title “Congratulations to our Grand Prize Winner!”
Randy patted my leg. “That’s great, baby.” He turned to his mother. “Can we go back to sleep now?”
She laughed and backed out of the room, but even after she closed the door, I heard her chuckling. This was as much her prize as it was mine. I climbed from the bed and joined her at the kitchen table, where we drank see-through coffee and poured through the article and the recipes they’d printed, learning in the midst of our reading that I’d also won second place for my chicken wings in the “Appetizers” category. “I’ve got to call and tell Janet and Shirley,” she said as she stood and started toward the kitchen phone to brag to her best friends.
“You might want to wait,” I said. “It’s not even 4:30 yet.”
We giggled, and she brought the coffee pot to the table, where we browsed the winning recipes and started our grocery list. Confession #9: One of my most unlikely best friendships was forged in the heat of a stifling kitchen.
Two weeks after my mother-in-law’s funeral, I joined my husband, his sister Janet, and her son Bryan in Georgia’s kitchen. The year was 2014, Randy and I and our son lived in Florida, Janet and her son lived in Tennessee, and none of us needed the extra furniture or furnishings Georgia’s overstuffed home held. Like mechanical, sad soldiers, we packed up the last of Georgia’s things. What wasn’t divided among friends and family would be donated or delivered to the local Virginia auction house.
I opened the cabinet door where Georgia kept her recipe books and recipe card files and pulled them down, making stacks on the kitchen counter. I opened one of the card files containing her recipes, and I pulled out a section and began laying them on the countertop like she and I did when planning our meals each week during those months we lived together.
My throat tightened when I saw that, after I’d moved away, she’d written my name in the upper corner of so many of those cards. “Rhonda’s recipe,” “Rhonda and I,” or “Rhonda’s,” she’d penned. I touched my name, then wiped my eyes.
“What’s that?” my nephew Bryan asked.
“These are the recipes we wrote together.”
“Yes. We created each one of these, right here in this kitchen.” There were dozens of them, some written in Georgia’s handwriting, others in mine. Some had ingredients crossed through, while others had measurements marked out and changed.
Randy and Janet came to browse with us. “I didn’t know you could actually make up a recipe,” Bryan said. “I thought they came in books.” We all laughed, and it felt, for a fleeting moment, as if Georgia were with us.
I placed my hand atop the cards. “May I have these?” I asked Janet.
She agreed, and I dried my face, gathered the recipe books and card files into a box, taped it shut, and placed it to the side. It was the only thing from my mother-in-law’s estate that I’d asked to have, though Janet generously shared with me Georgia’s china, a pottery tea set she’d fired, and two cross-stich samplers she’d made that hang on my walls today.
After returning to Florida, Randy and I carefully went through each box and plastic storage container, but we never found the recipe books or card files. Janet couldn’t find them in her boxes, either. I still don’t know if the box holding the recipes was delivered to one of Georgia’s friends, or it ended up in the auction house in the hands of a stranger. What I do know is that somewhere, someone has a card with the recipe for Mushroom and Barley Soup, and at the top of it, my mother-in-law’s careful handwriting reads, “Rhonda – Grand Prize Winner.”
MUSHROOM AND BARLEY SOUP
Rhonda Browning White – Grand Prize Winner
5th Annual Bluefield Daily Telegraph Kammer Furniture Cookoff
1 pound fresh mushrooms of your choice, cleaned and sliced
1 large onion, sliced thin
1 large carrot or several baby carrots, sliced
1 stalk celery, sliced thin
½ tsp Italian seasoning
½ cup pearl barley (quick-cook is fine)
4 cups fat-free chicken broth (or be fancy like the chef and make your own stock)
1 16 oz. can fat-free beef broth (ditto)
1 bay leaf (kiss it for luck)
Few drops of Tabasco sauce (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
In a medium stock pot or Dutch oven, sauté mushrooms and onions in a scant amount of broth. Cook until most of the moisture has released from the mushrooms, or about 8-10 minutes. Add carrots, celery, and Italian seasoning and sauté until tender. Pour in chicken and beef broths and bring to a boil. Add barley and a bay leaf, plus Tabasco for a kick. Reduce heat and simmer until the barley is cooked, about 45 minutes or so.
This steamy soup is particularly delicious served with bruschetta or toasted Italian bread. And, if you like more or less of anything, feel free to zhuzz it up. That’s what I would do. (See Confession #5.)
Rhonda Browning White resides near Daytona Beach, FL. She received the 2019 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction for her debut short-story collection, The Lightness of Water & Other Stories, which is also a 2020 finalist for the Eric Hoffer Book Award. Four stories from the collection are 2021 Pushcart Prize nominations. Her work appears in Prime Number Magazine, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, Qu Literary Journal, Hospital Drive, HeartWood Literary Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Steel Toe Review, Ploughshares Writing Lessons, Tiny Text, New Pages, South85 Journal, The Skinny Poetry Journal, WV Executive, Mountain Echoes, Gambit, Justus Roux, Bluestone Review, and in the anthologies Appalachia (Un)broken, Ice Cream Secrets, Appalachia’s Last Stand, and Mountain Voices. Her blog “Read. Write. Live!” is found at www.RhondaBrowningWhite.com. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Converse College in Spartanburg, SC and was awarded the Watson Fellowship from Eckerd College’s Writers in Paradise. She is currently at work on her first novel.