The highlight of this year’s Albemarle County Fair was not the husband calling contest or the country bands or even the cotton candy. The highlight of this year’s event was the miracle that occurred in the homemakers’ tent at the jams, jellies, and preserves judging table.
For two individuals, Miss Emma-Marie Pittman and my Aunt Beulah, the Albemarle County Fair has been less of a fun-filled family outing and more like a battlefield. Now the ammunition created by these two militant-minded individuals is not manufactured at any armed forces facility. Their ammo is created in their kitchens with homemade ingredients. And this isn’t a battle that was born overnight; this battle has been brewing and stewing for years.
The rivalry first began thirty some years ago when their pepper jellies first met under the homemakers’ tent at Claudius Crozet Park. Until that day, Aunt Beulah had always won the coveted first place blue ribbon and the best-in-show award in the category of jellies, jams, and preserves. She proudly displays her array of ribbons on the gingham valances above her kitchen windows.
Uncle Ralph complains that they are nothing but dust collectors.
“You’re a dust collector but I keep you around don’t I?” Aunt Beulah reminds her husband as she admires her ribbons illuminated by the circular fluorescent ceiling light in her kitchen. “I think they are all just beautiful.”
“Yeah, I’m sure you do,” Uncle Ralph mumbles. “You’re not the one that has to risk his life dusting them off twice a year.
Uncle Ralph does have a point. There was that one spring cleaning a while back when he was doing his one-foot-in-the-sink-and-one-foot-on-the-kitchen-chair routine to brush the dust off the ribbons when my little cousin Stuart turned on the garbage disposal. No, Uncle Ralph didn’t lose a toe, but he did lose his balance. And when he did, he brought down Aunt Beulah’s ceramic owl clock and her favorite plate on the wall with John F. Kennedy’s portrait on it. Miraculously, Uncle Ralph’s fall was broken by the ironing board and a basket of dirty clothes. The clock’s and the plate’s fall were broken by Uncle Ralph.
After Aunt Beulah was assured that her husband was okay, she looked up at the valance above the window and said: “You missed a spot. Can’t you get a step ladder from the garage so you can reach it better?”
About that time, Uncle Ralph lit up a Marlboro on the back stoop and shoved any idea of getting on a step ladder out of his mind.
The fact is, Aunt Beulah had never lost in all the years she had entered something in the jams, jellies, and preserves category. But, on that fateful day thirty some years ago, her pepper jelly sat unchallenged until a mere thirty minutes before the deadline. You guessed it. Mrs. Emma-Marie Pittman stepped up, entered her blackberry jelly, and that afternoon Aunt Beulah lost her title of Jams, Jellies, and Preserves Queen. It was the first time anyone can remember that she actually bummed a Marlboro off Uncle Ralph.
The next year, Mrs. Pittman showed up at the jams, jellies, and preserves table again. Aunt Beulah arrived with a new and improved blackberry concoction and she won the blue ribbon. And the batting back and forth of the Queen of Jams, Jellies, and Preserves title has become an Albemarle County Fair tradition.
But this year that all changed.
Both women were present as the judges discussed and tasted and examined and held each colorful jar up to the sunlight. They tallied their votes. The main judge took the ribbons from the box and placed them before the best specimens in the category. The two women moved slowly forward. They looked down at the table where the judge had placed two second place ribbons; one next to Aunt Beulah’s red pepper jelly and one next to Mrs. Pittman’s green pepper jelly. They were stunned.
But their own ribbons weren’t what the ladies were staring at. They were more interested in the first place blue ribbon that the judge had placed before the peach preserves that were made by some woman named Ellen Grant.
“Ellen Grant?” Mrs. Pittman questioned.
“Never heard of her,” Aunt Beulah smirked. “Probably some Yankee from New York City who never cooked a thing in her life. Bought some jelly from the Food Lion, slapped a ‘homemade’ sticker on it, and entered it without an ounce of guilt whatsoever.”
“Hmph,” Mrs. Pittman grunted. “Yep, the last name would be ‘Grant’, wouldn’t it.”
And at that moment a cute little girl no more than ten stepped up to the table with her mother close behind her.
“Look Ma, my jelly won first place,” Ellen Grant said in the sweetest Southern accent you ever did hear.
Mrs. Pittman and Aunt Beulah both gave a strange sigh of relief, shook hands, and directed their warm and genuine congratulations to the new Queen of Jams, Jellies, and Preserves and insisted that she and her mother join them in a complimentary funnel cake.
No one really knows what happened under the homemakers’ tent this year at the Albemarle County Fair, but the Hoos down in Hooville swear that the hearts of two old enemies grew three sizes that day.