Friday, July 23, 2010

4-H Projects

Put on a kettle of tea and prepare for the War and Peace of blog posts. Sorry about that. I hope you'll think it's worth the effort.

4-H is very big in my neck of the woods. I did some research on 4-H in order to sum the program up to you. I found the story pretty interesting, and, as everybody around here knows "what 4-H is," I bet very few know what it was, what it was intended to be, or take advantage of all it offers. The youth organization started about 100 years ago as a "hands-on learning" way to introduce new farming methods to rural youth, who might take their findings and attitudes to their skeptical parents. "So, brainwashing?" Michael asks.

Later on, it became more about the personal growth of the young person. The most traditional projects are still agricultural or in the home arts, but I'm always learning still more diverse categories that 4-H offers: recycling, scrapbooking, geneology.... (eh-hem) clowning?

Sophia is my only 4-Her at this point. (The four H's are Head, Heart, Hands and Health - the four parts of us which we can offer to learning and service) My girl LOVES the home arts. This year she entered three projects. They nearly killed us. I would like to think that we are not solidifying a habit of waiting until the last minute and not paying attention to details until we are surprised and frantic that the deadline is approaching, but that was our experience this year. She did a sewing project and two kinds of foods - baked and preserved.

Let's start with the sewing. My child has not so much as sewed a seam in her life, but her grade level required that she do a skirt with a fitted waist, which involved interfacing and a zipper, and a hook and eye. Parents are allowed to offer guidance, but the work is to belong to the kids only. I consider myself a somewhat knowlegeable seamstress, but not a terribly confident one. I haven't sewed a respectable garment in many years and my most successful zippers were installed while a more experienced seamstress stood over me.

We sewed. We ripped out. We sewed again. We cried. We perservered. We were anxious when we learned of the early deadline just a few days away. We perservered again. Blue ribbon. We were proud.

Sophia's is the white gored skirt up top.

On to the muffins. She was NOT allowed to use muffin papers to line the tins. We experimented. We greased with butter, with Crisco, with oil. We did not discern a difference. What we DID learn was that the lighter the application of lubricant, the better the results. Lots of oil in the pan made a crust on the sides and bottom of the muffin. Little oil allowed the muffin to still be cakey on every surface. We used my mother's very old Betty Crocker Cookbook recipe for a basic sweet muffin, which Mom used for her blueberry muffins. We made a batch with blueberries and a batch with fresh strawberries, and loved the color, the flavor and the originality of the strawberry. The foods were judged in an "open judging" situation, which meant that Soph waited her turn to hand it to the judge, watched it be judged, and answered any questions the judge might throw at her. The judge was pleased that the batter had not been over mixed... she could tell because the texture inside the muffin was consistent - no unsightly holes here and there. It was rated as "Honors." Honors means they were of extra high quality and would be judged again alongside ALL the honor-winning muffins and from that group they would choose a champion and reserve champion.

The 4-Hers turned in six of their most perfect and uniform muffins. The judges chose one to put in a baggie and display for the fair. They're all hanging here and Sophia's is among them.

For kids this young, the preserved foods assignment was to prepare a bag or freezer box of frozen berries. It seemed a fairly simple project, and if we had just been freezing berries for "home" it probably would have consisted of rinsing them in a sinkful of water and giving them just the slightest once over before flinging them into any old Ziploc baggie. Since a "judge" and "judgment" was going to be involved, I advised Sophia to look closely at them for colors other than deep blue, remove any errant stems or blossoms, and, if possible, eliminate the largest and the smallest so that the berries would be fairly uniform in size. Again there was open judging and we learned a lot from the judge. She recommended that we flash freeze them first, on a cookie sheet, before pouring them into the bag. It would allow each berry to freeze seperately so that they can be removed from the freezer bag as individual berries, rather than one big blueberry-flavored icicle. She also suggested that, if using a bag rather than a box, the berries should be spread out evenly throughout the bag, so that the it's fairly flat and can be stacked with other like-prepared bags. After learning all that we could have done better, we listened as she still awarded Sophia "Honors" for the frozen berries.

We got to the fair on opening day and found that there, among all the pictures of the frozen foods projects, was a fancy ribbon next to Sophia's name. The lavender ribbon on the right, above Sophie's head, is hers. Reserve Champion.

With all the mentioning I just did about "we" did this and "we" decided that, I can see that I was invested in these projects, too. At the fair, you see projects that run that gamut from sloppily assembled items clearly put together in an afternoon, to tidy adequacy, to exquisite, attention-getting showpieces. I feel so philisophical about the competition aspect of 4-H. I wonder if the sloppy projects were done by kids whose parents didn't care about the end results? Or by kids whose parents are hardcore about it being the kids' work and who don't offer any guidance at all? Or if those kids accomplished exactly what they intended: free passes into the fair, which is a perk of turning in any project.

On the other end of the spectrum, these Show-Stopper Projects... I wouldn't say there are NO kids out there who can turn out those projects on their own, but I KNOW that many parents can't help but live and die by the successes or failures of their kids. I wonder how many of them give in and get too involved? I was talking to another mom about feeling frenzied to think of recipes for muffins at the last minute, and I mentioned that we should look through the baked goods of the older kids to see what was coming up next year so that we'd know what...

"... what wins! Yeah!" she said.

No. I was just thinking of what the project would be. If it's cakes, Sophia can try several different cakes all year instead of not thinking about it until June. The other mom's focus on winning (and her daughter won several of the MANY projects she turned in) kind of made me sad.

Sophia's proud of her fancy ribbon for her berries. And I'm always proud of my kids. Not because of achievement, but because they're good citizens, my only real goal for them. I'm extra happy for Sophia this week, though. The fancy ribbon is nice, but I'll mostly think of the experiences with the skirt when I remember this year of 4-H. It was a hard project for her and she didn't let it beat her. She put her head down and got through it. Not only got through it, but did it well enough that some woman in Indiana with the title of 4-H judge gave it a blue ribbon.

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