I hope that when my kids are of necessary age, they will choose to join the best youth organization known to mankind. (In my humble opinion.)
Want to know what it is?
4-H.Why? Of all the activities I was involved in growing up, and there were plenty, 4-H provided the greatest opportunity for me to grow in all aspects of life and to develop any and every quality and skill I chose to pursue. After all, there are four H’s: head (clearer thinking), heart (greater loyalty), hands (larger service), and health (better living). On every scale: my club, my community, my country, and my world. Yep, I think that pretty much covers it. What else is there?
I was a proud member of the Shiloh Sunny Smilers (don’t you just love those 4-H club names?), an all-girls club that was the female answer to whatever it is that boys do in their all-boys clubs. While the girls in my club still had the opportunity to pursue other traditional “farm club” interests such as machinery and animal husbandry (I’m sort of making that up, I don’t really know what they called raising animals to show at the fair), our girls’ club focused on all things domestic.
Many of my fondest memories of my childhood and adolescence are of the varied activities and projects our club completed together. I recall field trips to visit experts, such as when we were introduced to a woman who refinished furniture. She had so many beautiful pieces in her shop, and I remember thinking that I wanted to learn how to strip down old wood and make it shine like new. At another club meeting each of us designed our own individual quilt blocks, and then shopped with our moms for coordinating fabrics to bring life to our designs. One frustrating individual sewing project involved a floral print blouse with a collar and yoke that put me in fits and tears. (My mom had to help me finish that one.)
Every fall we prepared for our biggest club fundraiser, canning and selling beef. Long before school was out for the day, our club leaders and several of our moms would set up in the school cafeteria, ready to roll by the time all the girls would arrive from our classrooms. We were assigned different tasks depending on our age, such as cutting up the beef, packing the jars, or measuring salt. Our moms (mine included) would handle the processing of the jars in the large pressure canners they had lugged with them and placed over the burners of the large industrial gas range, sometimes staying hours into the night to finish in an initially-cool kitchen turned steamy-hot once the first lid was removed. Their commitment made all the difference when in early November, we set up our table at the local craft show and bake sale, where we would sell out of canned beef just a few hours in. Our canned beef was so popular that after the first few years, our club leaders began taking advance orders so we could better keep up with demand. Certainly, this offered us a lesson not only in home economics, but in economics itself.
Our club also held an annual senior citizen luncheon at the community building, which coincided with preparations for our town’s annual celebration, Wellsburg Days. As the carnival had arrived overnight and began to set up right in front of the building, we would scurry back and forth between the kitchen and the only grocery a half-block up Main Street, grabbing whatever essentials we had forgotten as we began preparing a lunch that I seem to remember included beef-burgers, potato salad, and a fruit salad with marshmallows. I’m sure there was more, but the details have begun to fade. (Surprising, considering it involves food!)
For entertainment at the luncheon, some of our club members who would be delivering a demonstration and competing at the county fair would use the opportunity to practice and, in turn, delight an audience of senior women, women who had long mastered the skills we had barely just begun to undertake. One such day in the middle of June, my fellow club member, Monica, and I demonstrated how to make banana bread. We used an old recipe that her mom provided for us, which is still one of the best banana bread recipes I have. A few months ago, after my recent appearance in Our Iowa Magazine, I received a handwritten letter from back home, from a woman 101 years young (who still lives in her home, by the way). She remembers me as a child and as a young teenager, who demonstrated making banana bread at the senior citizen luncheon. And she still has our recipe. Apparently, we made quite an impression!
That banana bread demonstration equally impressed the judges at the Grundy County Fair, as Monica and I were selected to advance to competition at the Iowa State Fair. In all honesty, though, I can’t remember if it was banana bread that we prepared for the state fair audience. We had also demonstrated how to make an angel food cake one year at the county level, but I don’t know for sure which demonstration brought us to Des Moines. Either way, it was 4-H that gave me my first opportunity to compete in and develop a love for the greatest of state fairs, a love that continues today. I’ve now been competing in the foods division for thirteen years straight.
As much as I love the Iowa State Fair, 4-H brought me far beyond the ninety-minute trip to our state capital. While I’ve traveled to destinations far more exotic and worldly, spending a week in our nation’s capital as a teenager learning about how our government functions, from its beginnings, is one of the greatest opportunities I think I’ve ever had, one which formed lifelong friendships. The Citizenship Washington Focus trip for 4-Hers is not your typical sightseeing tour. To put it mildly, it’s like leadership camp on steroids with Washington, D.C., as your classroom. Not only did we have a jam-packed week with visits to both well-known and lesser-known landmarks and institutions that represent our nation’s history, we also participated in various group learning sessions, assuming roles of policy-makers and “practicing” those roles out in the community. While the capital city itself was mesmerizing, my personal favorite was on our twenty-some-hour drive out East. Visiting a Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg, standing on sacred ground that saw a moment in history which shaped our nation forever, is most humbling. The up-close-and-personal understanding of that history, well past a century later, established the purpose of our week in leadership learning and the importance of ensuring a future in which history will not be repeated.
4-H provided serious opportunities, but it also provided fun, fellowship, and food. In my club, that included our annual family potluck. In my mind it came around every May, because I remember the feel of the warm air on the breeze that wafted through the wide-open windows of the school cafeteria. (In a small town, everything happens in the school cafeteria.) I looked forward to it because it meant school would soon be over for the summer, and the one dessert that I waited all year on which to feast, would grace the potluck table as it did every year. The lip-smacking butterscotch pudding, layered over rich cream cheese and topped with fluffy whipped cream and nuts (let’s face it, it was most likely Cool Whip), all atop a pecan-studded crust, was simply irresistible to me. Just like my uncle who started dishing his plate dessert-first any time my grandma put her raisin cream pie on the table at a family get-together, I too could not risk my long-awaited annual treat to be swept out from under my fork. The position of the butterscotch dessert on the potluck table was the start of the serving line, as far as I was concerned. Yes, it was the first bite to hit my lips once I sat down with my plate, brimming full of the best fare lovingly prepared by the best cooks in town and on the farm, but it was also the last. I was careful to save one final morsel to savor after finishing the rest of my dinner, to linger on my tongue…until the next annual 4-H potluck. My only regret was never knowing who continued, year after year, to please my palate at the potluck. It’s as if they knew.
Butterscotch aside, my days as a Shiloh Sunny Smiler presented me with more opportunities than I probably even deserved, but certainly did not take for granted. I know someday soon my own children will be presented with many of those same opportunities…for clearer thinking, greater loyalty, larger service, and better living. They’ll learn cooperation, to pursue new skills, to be leaders. They’ll explore their world both near and far. They may even find their own version of butterscotch on the potluck table.
All they have to do is choose 4-H.
Yours in pie,
Several years ago I came across a recipe for a butterscotch pecan dessert, which turned out to be just like the one I remember from the 4-H potluck table. It immediately took me back to the warm, fresh air blowing through the school cafeteria, and now I make the dessert to enjoy every May.
Of course, why wait a whole year to savor that rich, sweet treat, when you can enjoy it in a pie just as easily. This recipe comes from Ken Haedrich’s Pie: 300 Tried-and-True Recipes for Delicious Homemade Pie. I entered this in the 2010 Iowa State Fair and took first place in the butterscotch pie class. Checkerboard crust or just simple crimped edges, this pie is a winner either way!
Butterscotch Pie with Checkerboard Crust
Roll out dough and ease into pie pan. Trim crust. Make cuts through the dough at approximately ½-inch intervals and approximately ½-inch long. Carefully fold every other section up and toward center of pie to create checkerboard appearance. Line pastry with parchment paper and fill with pie weights. Bake in 450° oven for 8 minutes. Remove parchment paper; bake 5-6 minutes more or until golden. Cool.
1 c. packed brown sugar
1/3 c. all-purpose flour
2 c. whole milk
3 large egg yolks
¼ tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla
3 T. butter, cut into small pieces
Combine brown sugar, flour, milk, egg yolks, and salt in saucepan. Cook over medium heat, whisking until mixture thickens and starts to boil, about 6-7 minutes. Continue to cook, whisking rapidly, for 2 minutes more. Remove from heat; whisk in vanilla and butter, one piece at a time. To cool, transfer filling to a bowl and chill over an ice water bath, stirring occasionally, until completely cooled. Transfer filling to pie shell, cover surface with plastic wrap, and chill in refrigerator for several hours or overnight.
1 c. heavy whipping cream
3 T. sugar
½ tsp. vanilla
In large bowl, beat cream until soft peaks form, gradually adding the sugar during beating. Add vanilla and beat until nearly stiff peaks form. Spread whipped cream over pie and top with chopped pecans. Serve and store remainder in refrigerator...as if you'll have any.