Cookies, Cakes, And Pies Oh, My!
By Scott Daniels
For 25 years, West Virginia CubScouts and their dads have teamed up for a baking contest that is judged at a world-famous resort hotel.
DRESSED IN CRISP, WHITE uniforms and billowy chef's caps, the culinary staff at one of America's top resort hotels huddles quietly near the Praline and Cream Pumpkin Pie. First, they inspect its presentation. Does it look good enough to eat? Next, they cut a slice to check its consistency. Finally, they taste it.
The verdict? Delicious, definitely a winner. But none of these chefs can claim credit. That belongs to 8-year-old Cub Scout Clinton Hartley and his dad, Merle. They are the overall winners in the 25th Annual Wilderness District Father and Son Bake-Off, sponsored by the renowned Greenbrier resort, located in the scenic Allegheny Mountains in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.
"That's homegrown pumpkin in that pie," Hartley said proudly. He credited his wife with creating the unusual recipe. "She picked out pieces here, there, and yonder, and put them all together. She's always experimenting, trying to find something a little different."
Soliciting recipes and advice from mom is entirely permissible under the Bake-Off rules, but the Cub Scout and his dad or another adult male partner must bake the final entry of a cookie, cake, or pie. It's been that way ever since 1976, when Virginia Thompson, a district Cub Scout leader in West Virginia's Buckskin council, first approached The Greenbrier about the contest.
"A key contact initially was the late Jack Horton, father of this year's Bake-Off chairman and an active volunteer who steered us to the right people at The Greenbrier," she said.
"Everybody was telling me, 'You're crazy to think The Greenbrier would host such a thing,'" Thompson remembers. "But I had learned when you go asking for something, 'Don't ever say no for anyone.'"
And The Greenbrier said yes. However, that didn't mean Thompson took the relationship for granted, at least not at first.
"In the beginning we worried about being invited back for the next year. Then in the fourth year, when a Greenbrier official made note of the annual Father and Son Bake-Off, I knew we had a long-term partnership."
Appearance, consistency, taste
The first round of competition for Cub Scouts and their dads takes place at the pack level. Winners advance to The Greenbrier finals in March. Finalists bake their entries at home and bring them to the stately resort hotel for judging on the day of the Bake-Off.
Elaborate sculptures of ice and chocolate, created exclusively for the Bake-Off by Greenbrier chefs, greet contestants and their families as they enter Colonial Hall. Each entry is assigned a number and displayed with others in its category on long rows of tables.
Following a short welcoming program, the hotel treats families to refreshments, a magic show, and a craft workshop. Meanwhile, six chefs fan out to sample the 22 varieties of cookies, 15 pies, and 24 cakes. Their task is to pick two winners from each category, plus one entry as Best of the Bake-Off and another for Best Presentation.
What do the judges look for? Rod Stoner, The Greenbrier's director of food and beverage, outlined three basic criteria, beginning with presentation.
"People eat with their eyes first," he said. "If it doesn't look appetizing, it may turn them off."
A professional knows if an item has been properly prepared by simply looking at its appearance, he said. For example, "you can tell if there's a weeping of a meringue [if] it has a lot of liquid attached. You can tell if the color of an item is not quite right."
Next comes consistency. By cutting an item and putting it on a plate, you find out how it holds together. "Sometimes it could be too loose, sometimes too heavy."
The final criterion, of course, is taste. "Is it missing something?" Stoner asks. "If somebody says it's pumpkin, and you can't taste pumpkin, maybe there are some other ingredients that have removed the natural taste of that product."
Chocolate a favorite ingredient
In 25 years of competition, the biggest change judges have seen is the way Bake-Off entries are displayed.
"It's gone from cookies arranged on a plate or a pie in a pie tin to elaborate displays," said Eric Crane, a Greenbrier pastry chef for nearly 40 years. "Now an entry may become a centerpiece on a silver tray set next to a candelabra."
The basic ingredients, however, remain much the same.
"The use of chocolate has increased tremendously," Stoner said. "It's an item you can't go wrong with. Most people enjoy it.
"There's always a cherry pie, a chocolate cake, and chocolate chip cookies," he said. "However, the contestants often add a twist to these basic recipes that produces an original creation."
That bit of originality may vault a recipe onto the list of Greenbrier offerings.
"The cookie category is the most interesting," said pastry chef Crane. "Occasionally we'll pick up a recipe and use it in the hotel. We are always serving tea and cookies to our guests, so we look for something different in that category."
A recipe for success
Virginia Thompson says the main ingredient of the Bake-Off's 25 years of success is the relationship between Cub Scouting and the resort hotel.
"Having the competition at The Greenbrier is a big plus," she says. "There are so many of these kids who would otherwise never get an opportunity to come here."
Eric Crane agrees. "The Greenbrier goes all out for them," he said. "You can tell how excited they are to be here as they walk into the lobby and go through the hallways."
Others praise Thompson for tirelessly promoting the event as a highlight of the Wilderness District's Cub Scout program. "Virginia began the whole thing," said Mary Cole Deitz, the chairman of the 2001 Bake-Off. "She's the lifeline of it all, and she keeps us all on our toes."
When the judges finish their tastings and complete their score sheet tallies, everyone gathers again in Colonial Hall. At the front of the room are the trophies and huge chocolate Easter bunnies made by The Greenbrier pastry staff that will be presented to each winner. First, though, Rod Stoner makes a sales pitch to parents about careers in the hospitality industry.
"If this competition sparks an interest in the kitchen for your son, encourage him. It will help make him more self-sufficient. And you never know when he'll use those talents later in life. It can become a career."
If this year's winning recipes are any predictor, some of these Cub Scout chefs may be well on their way.
Scott Daniels is executive editor of Scouting magazine.
January-February 2002 Table of Contents
Copyright © 2002 by the Boy Scouts of America. All rights thereunder reserved; anything appearing in Scouting magazine or on its Web site may not be reprinted either wholly or in part without written permission. Because of freedom given authors, opinions may not reflect official concurrence.