Adventure Chick

By M. Diane McCormick

Pasta Sauce Cook-off

Adventure Chick is Irish. Therefore, Adventure Chick can’t cook. After my ancestors perfected roasted barley for that delicacy known as Guinness, they declared culinary victory and retired. My sister once made an exploding pizza crust. I once tangled my fingers in the beaters of a hand mixer.

But in this foodie age, it’s lonely being a kitchen klutz. So this notice got my attention: “Have you been told your pasta sauce is amazing? Do you have a competitive spirit – for a good cause? Then, enter The Great Pasta Sauce Cook-Off! Let your inner gourmet shine!”

All proceeds would benefit Caitlin’s Smiles, the Harrisburg nonprofit that creates craft kits for children in 90-plus hospitals nationwide.

Can Adventure Chick enter, I asked? Sure, they said.

The rules: Enter a red or non-red sauce. Both, if you like. Bring one gallon of each. Tasters vote with their quarters – ballot-box stuffing encouraged.

Seemed straightforward. But where to start? First: Consult the expert, the man who saved me from a lifetime of subsistence on Kraft Macaroni and Cheese – my husband.

He cited The Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook, the one that opens automatically to the spaghetti sauce recipe on stained and crinkly page 337.

An ordinary meat sauce? Couldn’t I dream of winning – yes, winning – with a dazzling original? My husband divulged his secret ingredients – Parmesan cheese, red pepper, red wine. Maybe add some pepperoni, he suggested.

Sold! I would shop locally, strolling farmers’ market stands, selecting the freshest herbs, grass-fed beef and heirloom tomatoes.

Except that it’s competition Saturday, and I’m helping my mom run errands, and I still have to shop and make sauce, and did I mention that they encouraged creative displays, and I had the idea for a Looney Tunes theme that meant turning a toilet-paper roll into an Acme rocket for a Wile E. Coyote doll?

Cook-off Lesson One: Plan ahead. Way ahead.

At the grocery store, the butcher asked, “How lean do you want the beef?” Like I have any idea. But I arrived home with meat, freeze-dried garlic, oregano in a fancy package and red wine. Was I out of red wine at home? Probably not, but no sense taking chances.

Cook-off Lesson Two: Follow lesson one, and make more sauce (or chili, or chowder) than you think you need.

A gallon is a boatload of sauce. The pot was pitifully low. Back to the store. More onion chopping, beef browning, oregano-leaf stripping, pepper measuring and tomato-can opening.

Lesson Three: Clean as you go. “By the way,” my husband would ask later, after my delightful discovery that he had cleaned the kitchen, “when did you throw that hand grenade into the sauce?”

Despite my history of kitchen mishaps, I finished without shedding blood or breaking bones. Driving to the cook-off, with close-enough to a gallon of crock-potted sauce in the trunk of my four-day-old Nissan Sentra (“Please don’t spill, please don’t spill, please don’t spill”), I abandoned any hope of winning. Surviving would be nice.

All day, though, I’d been thinking of one person. Maybe she reached down from heaven to keep sauce from sloshing and ruining that new car smell. Maybe she gave me purpose. My sister Ann was 5 years old when she died, years before I was born. As I cooked, one story kept coming to mind. It was the 1950s. Ann’s days in the hospital introduced her, for the first time, to African-Americans on staff.

Why, she asked, did they have black skin? Because God made people in all different colors, our mom explained. For the rest of Ann’s few remaining days, the people in her coloring books were a Crayola-boxful of skin shades – purple and green, pink and brown, orange and red.

Like Ann, little Caitlin Hornung loved drawing. She, too, turned to crafts for relief from the fear and pain and boredom of hospital stays. Caitlin died from a brain tumor in October 2000, just before her 8th birthday.

In March 2004, Caitlin’s mom, Cheryl Hornung, founded Caitlin’s Smiles, to bring the comforts of crafting, drawing and journaling to children with chronic or life-threatening conditions. From a colorful, organized space on Sixth Street, volunteers create craft kits and package them in “Bags of Smiles” for distribution to 13 states and Washington, D.C.

That’s 800 age-appropriate bags a month. One bag might contain, say, a beaded keychain kit, coloring book, crayons, reading book, journal made from a 17-cent spiral notebook with a cheery calendar image glued to the cover, and handmade greeting card.

Hence, the cook-off fundraiser. Every dollar “buys a ton of Play-Doh and crayons,” says Hornung. Nearing Caitlin’s Smiles’ 10th anniversary, Hornung marvels that she “never thought it would go this far.” Hospitalized children aren’t the only ones smiling, she realizes, but volunteers, too – retirees, adjudicated teens, special-needs students.

“It’s making everybody realize that they’re very important in this life, and there’s lots of things they can do to help,” she told me. “This has opened my eyes to appreciate that everybody has talent.”

Hornung’s talents “change completely” from year to year. She used to be list-oriented. Now, she goes with the flow, dreaming up craft kits from surprise donations of “big, black trash bags full of yarn,” or hastily preparing 50 Bags of Smiles for delivery when visiting volunteers discover they live near client hospitals throughout the Northeast.

“I really feel like this place almost runs itself now, and I’m running to catch up with it,” Hornung says. Caitlin, she knows, “would just be loving all this.”

I can report that Caitlin’s sisters — future physicist Danielle, 17, and 11-year-old Abby – certainly enjoyed the ladling and camaraderie of the Great Pasta Sauce Cook-off. Nine sauces were entered. Miracle of miracles, my sauce – Looney Spaghetooni with Pepperoni – got good reviews.

“That has pepperoni as the seasoning,” one woman told her husband. “It’s really good.”

“That smells really good,” said another voter. “Is there sherry in there?”

“I voted for you,” said a vivacious little girl named Annie. Maybe I won her vote because we did Irish dance steps together. Cook-off Lesson Four: A cook-off ain’t no democracy.

Attendance was slim, so I wasn’t ladling furiously – future cook-offs will be held in winter, when summertime events aren’t luring away tasters – but coins started dropping in my jug. A dollar bill even appeared, and it wasn’t from somebody taking quarters as change.

Finally, the big moment. Okay, the winner wasn’t announced with spotlights and sealed envelopes. We huddled around Hornung and Caitlin’s Smiles staffer Kim Mumper as they tallied totals on scrap paper.

The winner: Suzanne Sheaffer’s tasty shrimp Alfredo that she’d never made before but which grew into legend as an old family recipe. Second place: New Leaf Catering, the Channels food rescue culinary school next door to Caitlin’s Smiles.

Third place: Looney Spaghettooni with Pepperoni.

They liked me! They really liked me!

Maybe my talents can change completely, too. Maybe Adventure Chick’s inner gourmet really is trying to shine. Maybe I should spend more time with The Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook. Page 264: Beer-battered chicken. Like, with Guinness? I can do that.