Saralee Perel

Award-winning columnist, Saralee Perel, can be reached at 

Her novel, Raw Nerves, is now available as a paperback and an e-book on

Zen and the Art of Bread Baking for the Barnstable County Fair

The day before the fair opens, scores of hopeful Cape Codders stream through the gates carrying handmade items like sweaters, quilts, jams and woodcarvings. The spirit is one of healthy cooperation and competition. Simply being a part of this 135 year old tradition makes these New Englanders shine.

On the other hand, each year my easy-going husband, Bob, turns into an obsessed combat soldier in a bloodthirsty battle to beat everybody else. 

“Bob,” I’ve said, “it’s not about winning.”

“Nobody believes that,” he growled, as he painstakingly braided the Rum Raisin Challah. On the counter was a small clump of the dough wrapped in foil. He explained, “This is a traditional Jewish custom. It’s an offering. You’re supposed to bake it with the bread.”

“You’re not Jewish, Bob. Why are you doing it?”

“So I’ll win!”

Bob has the oven on all July. The heat makes us cranky. Once, when I tiptoed behind him, he slammed down the cup of flour. “You were a marriage counselor for 22 years,” he hissed, while kneading his 5th trial loaf of Challah. “Ever hear of personal space?”

“Bob,” I took his sticky buttery hands and held them, “baking bread is supposed to be calming, like Zen.”

He looked at our clasped hands, thought for a moment, gazed into my eyes and said, “You have exactly 4 seconds to tell me what you’ve done with the raisins.”

“I  . . .  ate them.” I backed away, slowly.

“I slave all day in this hot kitchen. And you just waltz right in and take what isn’t yours?”

“There’s also a dork contest, Bob. You won.”

On cold winter nights, he sits near our wood stove poring through cookbooks. His ideas come from how ingredients sound together. Peanut butter, cheddar cheese, butter scotch, chocolate. These foods are “what people really want to eat,” he says.

But his mother’s cooking, he says, was barely edible. “Everything was covered in Ragu. We’d place bets after dinner. Was it chicken or fish?”

Bob has won 7 blue ribbons for his breads, but once he won 2nd prize, a red ribbon. He was a wreck. “You know what a red ribbon means?” he said to me. “It says to the world I’m a big fat loser.”

Last year, he won not only 3 blue ribbons, but the grand prize Best In Show ribbon for his Rum Raisin Challah, which he attributes to the offering.

This year, one of his entries is Bavarian Black Bread. As I’m writing this, I don’t know if he’s won. But recently, we had a heart-to-heart talk. I communicated my most intimate feelings. I said, “You better act like something other than a repulsive gargoyle this July or I’ll put it in the paper.” Threats are much more effective and time-efficient than the encouragement of actual psychological growth.

And so, Bob has straightened up. But unfortunately this turn-around has resulted in the following:

1. He’s adopted my Zen idea of bread baking and does everything agonizingly slowly. He stares at yeast. The dog and I roll our eyes. He speaks in parables which make no sense. “Without water, the yeast is above all, alive.”

2. He’s overly polite to me in the kitchen.

“Can I make you iced tea?” he’ll ask.

“No thanks.”

“You’re sure? It’s no trouble.”

"No. But thanks.”

“It’s easy. I’ll just get some ice and  . . .  ”

“Bob! I don’t want your stinky iced tea!”

Somehow, in spite of an always-turbulent July, the day before the fair is wonderful. Bob does his final baking at 4 AM so the loaves will still be warm for the judges. I do love watching him carefully and tenderly wrapping his breads. And it’s so exciting in the exhibit building. Everyone, from the needlepoint designer to the pole bean farmer, is so proud of their wares. And I’m so proud of Bob.

The competition is about people, not products. It’s about families and friends crossing their fingers. It’s about the fear and courage it takes to risk putting something homemade on display to be judged by others.

But it’s also about what Bob says whenever he’s recognized for one of his many feats. Whether it’s winning a blue ribbon or a recipe contest or making an appearance on a TV show. When it’s all over he breathes a heavy grateful sigh and says, “I hope my ex-wife saw that.”

Well, Bob’s made some progress, but I guess he’s got a ways to go.