I’m thinking about this because last weekend I participated in the Houston Avocado Takedown. This was one of a series of cooking contests, held all across the nation, in which participants prepare a dish based around a single theme ingredient.
I learned of the competition when the organizer contacted me and asked if I’d like to participate. For me, entering a food competition is definitely an act that falls outside my usual range of choices. My wife often says I’m the least competitive person on the planet, but to me being least competitive seems like just trying too hard. But enticed by a crate of free avocados, I decided to give it a whirl.
The recipe I settled on was little pecan shells filled with honeyed avocado and topped with a squirt of grapefruit curd. It was a recipe that fell in to my usual high-end hippie flavor range for desserts — complex, not overly sweet, earthy and unexpected. That was probably my first mistake.
To say that I was underprepared for something that I spent three days cooking for seems like it shouldn’t be quite true. But as soon as we stepped in to the takedownatorium that Warehouse Live had been converted into, I had a sensation surprisingly similar to the one I experienced twenty years ago when I opened my SAT test booklet and thought “Maybe I should have been sober for this.”
I had heard of cooking competitions in the past. Events like chili cook offs and barbecue cook offs happen with some regularity in our neighborhood, and of course I knew of the work of Indiana State Baking Champion Thelma Stymer. But until I met the other participants in the Avocado Takedown, it had never occurred to me that there were a substantial number of people who join in these events not because they love cooking, but because they love competition.
Our little table of tiny cups of avocado in aluminum trays was quickly overshadowed by elaborate displays including pinatas, multi-level desert trays, and young girls in very low cut dresses. Looking down at my rayon shirt that I’d paid three dollars for because it has a typo, I knew that I was pretty roundly outclassed.
At some point in our lives, we all meet the avocado of death. That big, alligator-skinned pear that can have you drowning in green slime before you can decide if it’s a fruit or a vegetable.
I like cooking. I like cooking for my family, for my friends, and for anyone else who wants to come and sit around the table. I like long evenings that involve multiple courses, multiple candles, and multiple bottles of wine.
What I’ve discovered that I don’t like is cooking to win. I didn’t even realize this until I attempted it, although I probably should have seen it coming. With my rants about the culture and integrity of food, I was setting myself up to betray my principles in quiet ways exactly the way a character in a Whit Stilman movie would. Only more Jewish.
When I cook for friends and family, I do so because I’m afraid of dying. I’m terrified of the thought that one day, inevitably, these meals are going to stop. That there will come a point where the food that people think of most when they think of me will be the cold buffet they had beside my cold corpse.
Cooking competitions are too close to that reality for me. Being in a situation where only one person is going to walk out the door with the prize blender is just too close to being in a box and in no position to notice just how uncomfortable your suit actually is.
Eating is one of the best ways we have of staving off death. Keeping ourselves and those we love alive and living is the best way I can think of to spend that time. Making cooking about who walks away with the prize blender, or about anything where the reward is something other than the pleasure of food and company, is just too close to racing to the end for me.
Anyway, for those of you who are interested, here’s the losing recipe.
Honeyed Avocado in Pecan Shells
- 4 medium avocados
- 1/2 cup honey
Peel and pit the avocados. Combine with honey in a large bowl.
Beat with an electric mixer for 5 or 6 minutes, until the mixture is light and fluffy.
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 stick butter
- 1 1/2 cups finely chopped pecans
- 1/2 cup flour
Preheat the oven to 350°
Beat butter and sugar together until light and fluffy.
Add the flour and chopped pecans and continue beating for an additional 4 or 5 minutes.
Spoon the mixture by tablespoons into mini-muffin tins. Place in a preheated 350° oven and bake for 10 minutes.
Remove the tins from the oven. While still very warm, press the center of each cup down with the handle of a wooden spoon to form hollow cups.
Let cool for a while in the tins, then remove to a wire rack to cool completely.
- 1 large grapefruit
- 1 lemon
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 stick butter
- Juice of 1 lemon
Zest and juice the grapefruit.
In the top of a double-boiler over medium heat, combine the grapefruit juice, lemon juice, 1 tbsp of grapefruit zest, butter and sugar and cook, stirring, until the butter is completely melted.
Stir in the eggs, reduce the heat to low and let simmer for 40 minutes, stirring often, until the mixture coats the back of a wooden spoon.
Spoon the honeyed avocado into a pastry bag and squirt enough into each shell to fill.
Spoon a small amount of grapefruit curd over the top of the avocado.
Makes about 24 cups. Repeat 20 times and leave without a prize blender.