Spoiler alert! This is a long post to read, but you can listen to the audio (10 minutes) if you prefer. It isn’t a poetic reading from my book, just another memoir piece. I included photos of Mom and me.
While I was attending Lake Superior State College (now a university) in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, I somehow got roped into participating in a cherry pie eating contest during the half-time of one of our hockey games. It was Homecoming, I think, and possibly something I had to do for the organization that nominated me for Winter Carnival Queen. I can’t imagine any other reason to consume an entire cherry pie in one sitting.
Being nominated to run for Winter Carnival Queen was a huge shock to me because I thought of all the gorgeous girls who could have been chosen from The Associated Women Students Organization, someone tall, slender, and graceful. I had failed miserably at trying out for cheerleading as I was so clumsy doing the splits that I sprained both knees. And someone once told me I had the legs of a kick boxer. Certainly not a Miss America type!
Still, as required, I campaigned and posted photos all over campus. One day in Brady Hall, I found some guys drawing a mustache over my smile and a third eye on my forehead. You should have seen their faces when I said hello. We had a good laugh.
So here I am now sitting at a long table positioned over a carpet spread over the ice in the hockey arena with several other contestants in a ready-to-go stance in front of their respective cherry pies. Sitting next to me was a stocky man who said he was from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada, just across the river. I don’t recall many other female contestants, like the other candidates for Winter Carnival Queen. Most of the Eaters were men. Once the buzzer rang “Start”, we shoved our faces into the pies. (We couldn’t use our hands because someone could possibly hold fists of pie under the table, I guess.)
I don’t believe I chewed. I had no time for that. I basically guzzled as much as I could in the time given. I could feel the chucks of cherries and crust gliding slowly down my gullet like a sweet snake. I could barely breathe with my face in that pie. I felt like a dog that had been starved and finally offered a plate of wet chow.
Being from a large family, I was a competitive eater. Our family meals were frenzies sometimes as the seven children knocked each other aside to get to the meat. Mom also made sure we ate the amounts Dad could. So I knew how to outdo a husky Canadian man. However, I had to keep my eye on my own pie and concentrate on guzzling the pie without chewing too long and not biting my cheeks or tongue! The farther into the mass of cherries and crust I buried my face, the sicker I felt. I was determined to win, nonetheless.
And I did almost win! When the bell rang, the prize went to my new friend next to me, and I was only 4 gulps away from victory. I could barely walk from the table as my massive stomach dragged on the icy cold carpet. I’m surprised I didn’t hurl, but Mom strictly prohibited bulimic responses to her huge meals, and she even warned about addiction to diet pills and any tendencies toward anorexia. If I ever lost weight, she told me I looked horrible. She didn’t want skinny kids possibly in response to ancestral trauma from the Great Depression. And she would say we needed to have some extra weight in case we got sick and hospitalized. To this day, I carry my weight like it’s an insurance policy.
Maybe I didn’t concentrate fully on the competition because of my memories pulling me to the 100 cherry pies I helped Mom bake when we were living in Fayette, Missouri, in the 60s.
A little backstory here because you may have heard me mention so many places I’ve lived in. Mom and Dad met in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, married and moved to various places in Michigan, Minnesota, and Montana, building a legacy of seven children across the Upper Midwest. Dad kept saying he needed jobs in bigger and bigger churches as his family was growing. At one point, he decided to seek a higher degree in Princeton, so we moved from Great Falls, Montana, to Escanaba, Michigan, his old family home, where my courageous Mother and us kids lived for a year while Dad completed a Master’s in Theology at Princeton. (By the way, I have a poem in my book Three-Penny Memories: A Poetic Memoir, about that year and my memories of my dad’s family lake house called “Our House of Hungers”.)
After Dad received his MA in Theology, he was able to apply for a teaching position at Central Methodist College (now a university) in Fayette, Missouri, and from there, he went on to accept a faculty position at Lake Superior State College back in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. So we moved back to Mom’s hometown, where I finished high school (1969) and my undergraduate degree at the college (1973). Now I’m back in Missouri because I came to Columbia to complete my Master’s in English Literature, and I never left.
Now back to the 100 cherry pies. We were living in Fayette, Missouri. I was a young teen. In those years in Fayette, I attended grades 8-10. Because of expenses, Mom helped out by baking pies daily for a local drugstore lunch counter in town, just a few blocks away down the street. The drugstore sold slices of Mom’s chocolate cream pies, banana cream pies, pumpkin pies, apple pies, cherry pies, and probably rhubarb pies. A wide variety of delicious pies.
I helped her make the pies. For the crusts, we used lard back then, and I really prefer it. (By the way, I think lard and butter are better for you than the hydrogenated oils we are told are healthier. In fact, I’ve learned that the rising incidence of heart disease coincides exactly with the increased use of hydrogenated oils. Possibly a coincidence, but still, one has to wonder. Have you noticed that margarine doesn’t melt well on toast? Where does that fat rest in the body?)
Back again to the pies. One day, mom was commissioned to bake 100 cherry pies for some organization’s picnic. Our kitchen wasn’t that big. We had a large deep freezer, though. We baked the pies in stages and froze them. I remember hours of cutting the lard into flour, adding just enough water to create the crust, rolling out the crusts, and helping to make the cherry filling. I don’t think we had canned cherry pie filling at that time. Just canned cherries that were stirred with flour, sugar, lemon, and probably vanilla. Everything was made from scratch in Mom’s kitchen following Betty Crocker, Better Homes and Gardens, or recipes from family and friends. Mom always said her mother never taught her how to cook, so when Mom and Dad married, Mom had to teach herself. She made sure all her children could cook a meal.
When the day came, all 100 frozen pies had to be baked. I don’t know how she timed it so well. I recall Dad carefully lining up the hot pies in the back of our station wagon to deliver them to the organization in time for the event. He had to make several trips. I wish my memories were more vivid as to how Mom managed to accomplish this feat on that last day when the pies were needed. Maybe she also had help from friends freezing and baking all those pies all morning. Fortunately, this enormous catering job only happened once! I’m not sure how much money she made when it was all said and done.
So during the pie-eating contest on the cold ice during the half-time of the Homecoming game at LSSC, all I could think of besides winning was the 100 cherry pies that Mom and I made back in Missouri. I felt like I was actually eating all those pies! In my poetry book, I have a poem about Mom and me cooking together. The poem was a metaphor for how she raised me. The poem is called “Cooking a Life with a Wire Spine”. Mom had a wire spine, a strong character.
Although I didn’t win the pie-eating contest, I did tie in the competition for Winter Carnival Queen. I was the short pleasingly plump brunette standing next to the tall, glamorous blond on the carpeted ice. Although we shared the title, we didn’t have to share the same crown, and fortunately, no pie was served.
The Featured Image is a collage of me. In the top center photo, I am leaving Sault Ste. Marie to go to Missouri, where I was attending graduate school. My parents gave me their old car, which I drove until it rusted out so much that the tires spread out and the body of the car collapsed. Like I did while trying to do the splits during the tryouts for cheerleaders. So the car and I understood each other. It was a guzzler, too. In the other photos, I’m older and probably already have the ESL teaching job at the University of Missouri that I kept until retirement.
I wish I had photos of my crowning as Winter Carnival Queen. Or as The Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, Tricentennial Queen (1968), but that’s another story. I don’t recall whose house this is!
Copyright, 2022, Barbara Harris Leonhard