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Tag: Dane County Fair

Kids’ Cake-Decorating Contest At The County Fair: A Study In The Philosphy Of Perfection

My 9-year-old daughter, Lauren, and I sat in the Dane County Fair Exhibition Hall B surrounded by perfect cakes. They had smooth, glass-like sides. Their tops had imaginatively-elaborate decorations of molded shapes and figures that seemed to defy gravity, -decorations that made Lauren and I gasp, “How did they DO THAT?!”  Beside Lauren was her own cake, -a simple, round, white cake frosted on top with a rainbow and a small black pot of gold. Its butter-cream frosting looked delicious, -definitely mouth-watering, but it was not perfectly smooth. The pattern of spatula lines could easily be traced. The colorful rainbow was fun and frolicky, but its edges bled a bit. The green frosting around the base of the cake was uneven, more like a moat on windy day than a lake of Yes, a 9-year-old had surely frosted this cake. And it was beautiful. We had thought the cake perfect when we left the house. Lauren was hoping she would win the 4-H Club, cake-decorating contest at the Dane County Fair. But now, surrounded by perfection, we discussed failure as a first step on a path to perfection.

I tried to explain the ages-old, Japanese artists’ practice of completing a work of art and then in the last stroke, adding some small mark to make the work imperfect. Lauren asked why the artist would do that. Rapidly trying to remember a concept I once thought I had understood, I said, “Well, the artist didn’t want it to be perfect.”

“Why not?” she’d asked.

“Because,” I replied, “then it wouldn’t be perfect.” I was obviously getting this all wrong. Somewhere in those words was wisdom, but it remained cryptic as always. Lauren gave me that well-practiced, would-be pre-teen look of Mom’s really making no sense now.

4-H club friends came over. They could see our disappointment. I asked how people got the sides of their cakes so smooth. “A damp, patternless Viva paper towel,” was their answer. Apply the frosting, then smooth it down with the damp towel.  Well, now we know. But could a damp paper towel really accomplish all that?

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Cake Decorating, Raising Animals, and Carnival Rides – Ways We Teach Children Life Skills

I think we trick our kids. We lure them with sweet flavors, bright colors, and creamy, soft textures to make them learn the hard skills life requires. At least, that was my impression after seeing the fun, elaborately-creative cake decorations on display at the Dane County Fair in Madison, WI. cake-decorating-1Children in 4-H clubs throughout the county competed for prize ribbons in cake decorating by artistically coating pieces of Styrofoam with colored frosting. The designs they painted on their simulated cakes, cookies, and cupcakes celebrate our life-changing moments and major holidays, -birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, Valentine’s Day, Easter, 4th of July, Halloween, harvest time, Christmas, and even April Fool’s Day -that day we play tricks on each other and laugh.cake-decorating-2

Recalling my own efforts to make King Lingonberry and a spiced nose cake made me appreciate the skills these children exercised in creating their masterpieces. First, the children had to choose the occasion they wished to celebrate and then look inward to tap their unique creativity. They needed to imagine, in fine detail, each colorful image they wished to paint. Then they had to plan exactly how to re-produce that image in frosting. Construction of the imagined final product had to be translated backward into a step-by-step series of actions. The tools needed to be gathered, – the workplace organized.

Then, for most, the hard work began. Any ease in seeing something gave way to the challenge of making it. Eyes, brain, muscles, hands, -the whole body had to coordinate its movements to precisely layer the frosting. Mistakes inevitably happened. Frustrated emotions were curbed and problem-solving practiced. How could the mistake be fixed? If it couldn’t, then how could the design be changed to turn the blemish into an asset? Distractions occurred and had to be ignored, -attention continually redirected to the task, hour after hour. Each child gave a day of his or her life to creating the Styrofoam cakes on display at the fair.

Elsewhere in the Exhibition Center and outside in the fairground barns, children were practicing other life skills. They were grooming and showing the animals they had spent months raising. Some children showed their pet cats, rabbits, and guinea pigs. Others showed commercial livestock, -their beef and dairy cattle, pigs, sheep, lamas, goats, and poultry. The children were tested not only on the physical condition of their animals, but on their own skills in showmanship.

I watched the nervous intensity that the children focused on their animals,-readying them in the stalls, and showing them in the ring. This was serious business. Months of daily labor would be judged over the course of a few minutes.

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Kids Raise Food on the Farm in Wisconsin 4-H Clubs

“What are your kids doing for the summer?” -that’s the current question we parents are asking each other. It’s part of the research project parents do every May. For the past 10 days I have been comparing schedules, prices, and activities of various summer camps. I put this question to my friend, Jane Griswold, who works at Wisconsin’s Hoard’s Dairyman, and has three school-age children. Jane said that for the past several years, her kids have enjoyed the Cross Plains 4-H Club activities.

4-H clubs began forming throughout the United States in the early 1900’s. Their original purpose was to educate youth in research-based, agricultural practices and technologies. Today’s clubs emphasize leadership and problem-solving as they guide kids in hands-on projects ranging from the Arts and Communication, to Animal Sciences, Mechanical Sciences, Natural Resources, Plant and Soil Sciences, Family, Home and Health, and Community Involvement. Central to the 4-H mission is development of the good citizen. Today, 6.5 million young people pledge: “my HEAD to clearer thinking, my HEART to greater loyalty, my HANDS to larger service, and my HEALTH to better living, for my club, my community, my country, and my world.” And does participation in 4-H clubs foster self-confident, independent, successful citizens? National research studies say ‘Yes’.

For their 4-H summer projects, the Griswold children will be raising livestock which they will show at the Wisconsin, Dane County Fair in July. Jane explained that she and her husband, Tim, grew up on Wisconsin farms. They bought a small farm so their children will learn the valuable lessons farm-life teaches, – lessons learned from being responsible for the care of other creatures, whether these creatures be animals or plants. Accepting responsibility for another life-form teaches life’s lessons of hard-work, self-discipline, independence, problem-solving, and self-lessness. As all care-givers learn, “it’s not about you! – It’s about the one who needs you.” Or, put another way, “Love isn’t how you feel about someone; it’s how you treat them no matter how you feel.”

Jane and Tim want their children, Kate (14), Sara (12), and James (9), to understand their place in the natural cycles of life, – particularly, life’s most essential cycle, -the cycle of food. By nourishing plants and animals, we people sustain ourselves. Some of the most prevalent lifeforms on this planet: corn, beans, rice, cattle, sheep, pigs, and chickens, are those which nourish humans and are therefore nourished by humans. We need each other. And out of this mutual need, grows respect. How does a parent teach a child to respect the planet? – one life at a time.

The animals come to the Griswold barn after they are weaned. Then each child assumes care of one or more animals, although the siblings routinely help each other. Kate cares for 5 pigs, – Lollipop, Skittles, Reeses, Snickers, and Twix. Her banner at the fair will read, “Pork is a sweet deal!”  Kate also cares for and will show some ewes (female sheep) at the fair. Sara is responsible for Angel, a gentle but rambunctious, jersey dairy cow. Next year, Angel will have a calf and join a dairy herd. James cares for Rocket, a Black Angus steer who presently outweighs James by roughly 900 pounds. Rocket is so named because “he must grow like a rocket to make weight for the fair.” He gains about 2-3 pounds per day from the roughly 30 pounds/day of food James feeds him.   

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