Things that Santa Claus and I have in common:
1. We like soft clothing
2. We have a distinctive (and perhaps frighteningly loud) laugh
3. We can consume a staggering number of cookies in a single day
Earlier this month, I was asked to do something that quintessentially was a dream come true and marked one of my greatest achievements since moving to Rhode Island:
I was asked to be a judge for a statewide cookie contest.
— Jennifer Currier (@fushilou) December 6, 2015
It truly felt like I hit a new rung on the ladder of success, and while for some people that might involve graduating from medical school, or giving birth to a healthy child, in my world, my measure of success comes from publicly being acknowledged as a Cookie Expert. Thank you, RI Food Fights #CookieSmackdown for recognizing my talent*!
*my only prior acknowledgement came via a highly flattering reputation as a dessert-eating human anomaly, passed down from one generation of Dartmouth students to the next.
Here is what it was like to sit at the judges’ table.
First of all, a little background. RI Food Fights is, at heart, a celebration of Rhode Island’s culinary offerings. Founded by Jim Nellis, it sponsors multiple events throughout the year that allow the people of RI to experience new restaurants, chefs, and bakeries. In an event like the Cookie Smackdown, the contest convenes in one location on a specific day, people buy tickets and then sample the best of the best till their hearts’ content. At the end, they vote for the “People’s Choice,” and The Judges award their own 1st and 2nd place winners.
In addition to this, there are also passport events that have themes (Best Pizza, Best Burger, Best Calamari, Best Iced Coffee), and with a purchase of a passport (starting price $10-15), one gets free coupons for these items at 12-15 locations that is good for at least a month. It’s an amazing deal! But it’s not for the faint of stomach. I’ve never eaten so many burgers in my life as I did last spring. It might have taken a few months off of my life, but I think it was worth it.
[For the entire background on RI Food Fights and an interview with Jim Nellis, you can listen to this stellar podcast created by two of my fellow judges.]
Following in my dad’s footsteps: Meet “The Judge”
Qualifications: drinks milk from a shot glass and binges on sweets. Also, a food writer for Motif Magazine, top contributor of RI’s TasteMade restaurant videos, and an infiltrator into the local food network
Brad, of Chuck and Brad’s podcast
Chuck, of Chuck and Brad’s podcast
David Dadekian, founder of #EatDrinkRI (and kind of a big deal)
Katrin Schnippering, of Eye Cookies and two-time grand champion of RI Food Fights Cookie Smackdown.
I arrived hungry and excited. Based on my experience from last year as a ticket holder, I knew demolition would occur as soon as the floodgates opened, so I was thankful to be getting first dibs as a judge. But panic set in when five minutes had gone by and everyone else was filling up his and her plates while the judges hadn’t tried a single cookie.
Another cause of distress: David told me if a booth had more than one cookie on display, the bakers would chose what they thought was their best representative, and that would be the only one we could sample.
“What if they don’t choose the one I want?” I asked, looking like this cat:
I knew there were several bakers with more than one cookie I wanted to try, since I had taken pictures before the doors officially opened, and I was facing FOMO*.
*Fear Of Missing Out.
“Can I just…go…get the extra cookies now?” I asked Dadekian, the veteran judge.
“No,” he said, with a mixture of both curiosity and firmness. “We’re not supposed to know which cookies belong with which booths–it may alter our judging.”
“Oh.” I thought of my camera full of pictures and quietly took my seat.
Here are some of the before pictures I wasn’t supposed to take:
At the judge’s table, we were given judging forms, but Brad came prepared with his own judging rubric, and it was brilliant (read the fine print):
I couldn’t stay quiet for much longer. After the third time I voiced my concern about not having eaten a single cookie, Dadekian sent out a young runner to fetch us cookies.
Our first sample was the whoopie-pie cookie.
I honestly expected it to be too sweet, but we took a bite, and magic happened.
The center was a layer of chocolate chip COOKIE DOUGH. On the Brad scale of cookies, it tasted like angels. I gave it tens across the board. Everyone seemed unnerved by this: “This is the first cookie,” they reminded me. But I know a good cookie when I taste one, so I went with it**.
**more than one judge admitted remorse for not doing the same thing because, as they eventually found out, it was indeed their favorite cookie.
Next came the fig and date biscotti. I was beyond thrilled that this made it to the judging table, but then, when I nearly chipped a tooth biting into it, I realized not even the allusion of Greece could help raise its score.
(For the record, I had a cup of coffee with me, which I used accordingly to test the biscotti entries. It still was quite hard.)
Next on the list:
It was a MASSIVE macaroon. For those of us who like coconut (I do!), this was delicious. But for those who don’t (everyone else?), it was less of a win.
We were almost to the half-way point when things took a turn for the worse. The fourth entry came out looking like this:
A lemon flavored cookie garnishing a lemon-colored drink! How clever!
Turns out, that lemon-colored drink was lemoncello. And perhaps not the highest quality of lemoncello, either. But, as the ever-faithful judge, I drank all of mine on a dare.
Then, my fellow judges dared me to drink all of theirs, too.
I heard a hint of doubt in their challenge, so of course I had to accept.
Here are the stages of drinking five lemoncellos in a row:
*** “____’_ ____ ___ ____.”
The next cookies I judged were a bit of a blur. I remember giving one entry all 7’s (“Lucky sevens!”), and I remember my extreme displeasure that the gingerbread cookie was covered in canned whipped cream instead of icing. Thankfully, a group of my friends walked by and I grabbed them by their shirtsleeves, begging them to “PLEASE FIND ME WATER.” They returned with a Dasani bottle and soon I was rehydrated.
With due diligence, I ate the rest of the cookies, even the biscotti that had a weird herb flavor. I really enjoyed the chocolate chip cookie that had a hint of cayenne (said Brad, “…there’s an aftertaste”) and another traditional cookie that had chocolate chips and almonds and which I could have eaten by the dozen. Not over-the-top like the whoopie cookie, but nicely done.
The winner, however, ended up being the gingerbread cookie covered in whipped cream.
Second place went to the whoopie pie (hooray!) and the People’s Choice Award went to Julian’s, (i.e., straight 7’s, which I did end up altering after drinking some water).
As the judge’s collected their items and got ready to clear out, I started noticing piles of uneaten cookies.
“What is this?” I asked in horror.
Cookies with only a single bite taken out of them, some half-eaten, about to be thrown out.
Turns out, all of the other judges merely “sampled” the cookies. I was the ONLY JUDGE WHO ATE EVERY COOKIE. Not to mention, I drank everyone’s lemoncellos!
How could everyone leave me hanging? Don’t they understand the first bit and the middle bite and the last bite confer different tasting nuances? How can one possibly understand the intricacies of a cookie having eaten only ONE BITE?
Not only that, how did I not notice that I was the only person finishing her cookies for the entire hour we sat there? Was I in such a state of concentration that I neglected to see Katrin and David filling up the trashcan beside them, or Brad and Chuck creating windowsill piles?
I felt both ashamed and strangely proud.
If prizes went to judges, I think I would have won first place.
I wish you all a Merry Christmas, and that no matter which cookie you left for Santa last night, that he treated you well 🙂
Ho ho ho!