The first thing I learned when I went to enter my homemade jellies in the Arlington County Fair was that I didn't know diddly about the gameswomanship involved.
Like the rules said, I had used plain, clear jars, which looked pretty drab next to the fluted and waffle-weave containers most of the veterans has used. Mine looked all the plainer for not having been waxed and polished; a waxed jar not only looks better, it feels better, subtly influencing the judges.
Then there was the matter of the air gap. When you pour jelly into a jar you stop about a quarter-inch below the rim so that when it cools there will be enough vacuum to ensure a tight seal. Unless, I found, the jelly's going to the fair, in which case you fill the jar right up for appearance's sake. It won't spoil before the judging, and not having to wrestle with a tight lid may leave a judge in a better frame of mind.
But the worst thing about my jelly was that I make the wrong kinds. Elderberry and Tabasco both qualify for the "Miscellaneous" class, and only one entry per class is permitted. I decided on the elderberry, since Tobasco jelly is, certain guests have told me, an acquired taste.
Miscellaneous might better be called the amateur class, because knowledgeable contestants avoid it. The flavors, odors and colors clash; as Churchill once complained of a pudding, "it has no theme."
"The Tabasco would have been a better choice for Miscellaneous," said a woman who was stalking the asiles of entries with an air of assurance, and whose advice I sought too late. "At least it would stand out after whatever the judges had sniffed and tasted before it."
She picked up both jars and inspected them critically. "Besides, you can see through the Tabasco. This elderberry is black as pitch. For the first impression, color and clarity are even more important than a well-dressed jar." i
"But it has to be dark to taste right."
"County fair jelly is not to eat," she said. "Eating jelly is another thing entirely. In contests, you go for color and transparency, and use enhancers to make up for the lost bouquet and flavor. You have to use less sugar and more pectin, or better yet gelatin, if you know how. Judges don't go around eating the stuff, it would make them sick."
"What do you use for enhancers?"
"Herbs and spices."
"Such as you'll figure out if you keep at it long enough. It's the kind of thing a mother tells her daughter, but not her neighbor. And certainly not a man."
"What's wrong with men?"
"Not a thing, in their place. Which is over at the craft tables. You boys win enough of the prizes in this world as it is."
This boy won only Honorable Mention.