MONDAY: The Ladies’ Potluck Competition

BY LISA DUCHESNAY

Over the last three years, Lisa Duchesnay has published a number of articles on Canadian and American sites. Copyright is held by the author.

“SHE’S NOT going to win this time! No way no how,” Angie said, while her silent husband Gus swallowed his exasperation with his morning coffee. She meant Diane Swanson, the mayor’s wife who’d won the first prize for the last five years, with her beef stroganoff dish, at the Potluck Competition. This year first prize was an all expense-paid, 10-day escape for two to Costa Rica, plus a mention and a photograph in The Standard, Elliot Lake’s weekly newspaper.

Since there wasn’t much activity during the summer months, the mid-July festivities were appreciated by the local community and its seasonal residents. Marc Swanson had created the The Mid-Summer Festival his first year as mayor, with the financial support of Retirement Living Inc. and the Chamber Of Commerce. Elliot Lake, a 1950’s uranium mining town, remote in the midst of many lakes, trails and wildlife parks in Northern Ontario, was well suited for outdoor competitions and games. The evening ended with a street dance, with a live band  and a cash bar in the old downtown area.

Diane Swanson had easily convinced her husband to add the cooking competition for the older women. It tied in nicely with the afternoon’s hungry crowd. The logistics of keeping the food warm, adding side dishes, condiments and desserts had been fine tuned by Diane and her friends over the years. The serving area was in the city’s large multifunction building with a huge parking area for seating.

Small town politics being what they were, the three judges were male business owners of long standing. Angie and Gus Mallory on the other hand ran the local funeral parlour, with little influence to be gained. The Elliot Lake event was well attended, the free food and ample buffet concoctions a big draw. Not all the submitted dishes were meant for the competition, most homemakers knew the judges had a compelling bias  supporting the powers that be, and saw no point in participating in the contest. A few loyal ladies did compete to support Diane Swanson and give the potluck some credibility, defusing the “it’s rigged” whispers.

Invariably, the six finalists picked after a secret ballot by the contestants, were the same three or four wellknown women with their signature recipes, plus a few newcomers, who mistakenly thought they had a chance, at least for second or third prize. The truth was Elliot Lake as a small Northern town, favoured her long-term community members, and new ladies NEVER won anything. Angie Mallory had lived in Elliot Lake her whole life. She was a fantastic cook, did not care a hoot about the politics of the place, had won a few third prize ribbons, and was determined to go to Costa Rica with Gus this year. Her old dad the World War Two veteran would have laughed at her plan for sabotage.

Of course, in their funeral home business, Gus handled numerous types of chemicals, but she thought something more mundane would do the trick. She headed to the Rexall Pharmacy for her foray, walking up and down the long narrow aisles muttering, “beef stroganoff….beef stroganoff….beef stroganoff.” She reached the cough syrup and cold remedy section, looking at all those nice bottles with reddish liquid, and one stood out: BUCKLEY’S. “How about Buckley’s Beef Stroganoff for a taste to remember?” She said, smirking to herself.

For the next strongest competitor, Evelyn Boudreau, Diane Swanson’s best friend, and spouse of Dr. Jean Boudreau, millionaire veterinarian. Her specialty being baked cabbage rolls. Something fine and dry would work here, she reflected. Angie returned to the baby aisle for JOHNSON’S Talcum Powder, “those rolls are going to smell just cheeky!.” For the last obstacle one more ingredient, Cod Liver Oil, Monique Duncan’s scrumptious macaroni and cheese casserole just might swim in it. Monique was unique in Elliot Lake, the wealthiest Remax agent and top real estate performer of Algoma county.

Because the warm food could only sit for so long, for display, tasting and judging, the competition from beginning to end took about an hour on the Friday afternoon. The six winning dishes were moved to the judging table. Angie had about five minutes before the three judges sat down to sample the food. She heard this year, Monique Duncan was out of the running, having been struck with the latest virus during a long shopping trip in Toronto. That left Evelyn Boudreau and Diane Swanson to deal with.

In the guise of admiring the six selections, including her own aromatic lamb curry stew, she bent down over each entry, sniffing and moving back and forth to get a better view. The Boudreau cabbage rolls and the Swanson beef stroganoff sat in the middle, side by side. As Angie leaned closer, she eased two small pill containers out of her jean pocket, and furtively sprinkled the syrup, then the powder. She did this with as little arm movement as she could, swinging her long red hair back and forth to distract any onlookers. She lingered a few moments longer, not daring to turn and see if anybody was watching. She hoped her subterfuge went unnoticed. Yes, the bitter syrup blended in with the beef sauce, and the white baby powder was melting on the cabbage roll’s wet surface. “What are you doing Angie?” Diane Swanson asked, staring at her with her little black currant eyes. Angie jumped with fright.

“Nothing… just admiring the new finalists’ food.” She muttered as she walked away trying to look cool and unruffled.

The judges representing Zeller’s, Seidel’s and Canadian Tire, all members of the Chamber of Commerce and the local men’s organizations, sat in front of the judging table and waited as one of their daughter’s served each one a small portion of the six dishes on a large plate. The six entry finalists had to sit in the front row of the huge seating arrangement. In the same order as their dish was positioned. Just so they don’t get confused Angie thought. She took her seat at one end of the group. This is going to be such fun she rejoiced as she looked beside her at this year’s finalists: three returning contestants and three new ones. The lady next to her was a short buxom
blonde, with a mini skirt and ample curves, the newcomer that had brought the ribs and onions dish, it seemed.

After introducing herself, Angie asked “Your dish looks interesting. You must be new in town?”

Josie McIntyre hesitated, then replied, “Oh, that’s from Idaho, where I’m from, my grandmother’s recipe. Really easy, just bakes all afternoon. Hum… my husband Joe McIntyre and I just arrived, he’s a general contractor.”

Angie gave her a wolfish grin and said, “Well, good luck then.”

Already having a good idea who was going to win what, the judges still had to try each dish carefully, and studiously write something down. Angie watched as they ate the “newly improved” beef stroganoff and cabbage roll dishes. Loud gasps, choking noises, and pinched faces followed. “Success! Costa Rica here I come,” Angie thought, cheering quietly. The last two were her’s and Josie’s, these brought smiles and approving nods from the men.

The judges left, and the horde of spectators waited patiently, with the satisfaction of knowing a good meal was coming. They took longer than usual to deliberate, but finally showed up, looking a bit sheepish. The senior of the three, stood and addressed the crowd.

“We thank you for supporting the Elliot Lake Mid-Summer Festival, and especially congratulate all the Potluck Competition participants. As we are a bit behind, we will announce the winners right now. Third prize goes to… Evelyn Boudreau for her wonderful baked cabbage roll casserole.” Silence fell. “Second prize goes to… Diane Swanson for her fantastic beef stroganoff dish.” Now the deep silence was broken with titters and guffaws. “First prize goes to the most deserving entry this year…” Angie stood up, heart beating furiously in her chest, “…the old-fashioned beef short rib and onion bake from our newcomer Josie McIntyre.”

Angie blurted “Crap” and sat back down.

Josie slowly stood up blushing, walked up to shake the beaming judges’ hands. Sweetly taking the gift certificate and the travel agency tickets, while pulling on her tank top and smiling at The Standard’s male photographer. Diane and Evelyn were struck dumb.

3 comments

  1. Connie Cook

    Loved your story. Reminiscent of the baking/canning contests at the local fall fairs in the farming community I grew up in.
    Great ending. Karma will always getya!
    Connie

  2. Lisa Duchesnay

    Glad you enjoyed it.

    As a transplanted Torontonian, Northern Ontario is a bit like moving to another country in another time. Very disconserting at times but with many ironic and humourus situations. Good fodder for stories.

  3. Sue Battle

    Lovely story. It kept me interested and wanting to know what would come next. Good ending.

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