In my life I have survived many types of traumatic experiences. The worst of these occurred at St. Joseph’s Orphanage. I suffered physical and sexual abuse there, at the hands of those one should be able to trust the most.
My first memory of the orphanage was when we were surrendered. I watched my sister being marched to another wing. My brother and I held one another’s hands. We were told to follow the nun to the boys’ dormitory on the other side of the building. We were given numbers, along with a pillow, sheet and blanket. My number was 25. I was placed on the little boys’ side. My brother was number 35 and he was placed on the big boys’ side. So, we were all separated from one other and alone. That was when I learned how to fear.
The Sisters of Providence, who ordered us around, mostly came from poor and uneducated homes in Canada. They had no special training. From many of them, the best you could hope for was casual indifference. The rest were as mean as a nest of vipers. The breaking of the simplest of rules meant punishment. They liked their little tortures.
Have you ever been made to kneel with a hard bean under each knee? It’s not as much fun as it sounds. Five minutes feels like a lifetime. Fifteen minutes later and you don’t think you’ll ever be able to walk again. Another little pleasantry they enjoyed was forcing you to stand, holding your arms straight out from your sides, with a heavy book in each hand. A nun would eye her pocket-watch. You didn’t want to drop the books before the time ran out. If you did, you’d get hit on the back with a teachers’ blackboard pointer. You could receive these punishments for as little as failing bunk inspection, running on the stairs, or whispering in church. THAT was a biggie. Before St. Joseph’s, I’d never been to church. So, I hadn’t known that whispering was against the rules. The nuns were not only creative with their tortures, but with what they deemed a punishable offence. I lived, therefore, in a constant state of fear.
By the time I left the orphanage, my number had been changed to five. I never let the numbers they assigned me define who I am. I think somewhere in their minds that was their intention: to take the only thing we had left, our sense of self…our willpower. But I refused to surrender.
The Chili Contest
As I was shopping for groceries one morning, I saw a flyer advertising a chili cookoff. Well, I said to myself, I make a good bowl of red chili; why not give it a try, see how it goes?! So, I filled out an entrance form and got a copy of the rule book to study.
The rules were fairly straightforward: cook your best pot of chili using proper sanitation procedures, and have it judged accordingly. What’s so hard about that? There were four prizes: you could win, place, or show.
The night before the chili contest I gathered my Coleman stove, my awning, and all my spices and peppers as well as my secret ingredient! You know all recipes need a secret ingredient. The contest started at ten o’clock, I was ready and set up by nine.
When the whistle was blown to start the contest, I immediately began searing off my cubed tri-tip and hamburger mix with a little olive oil on the bottom of my stock pot. Once that was seared off, I added a couple quarts of beef stock and let it simmer until the beef was tender. The heat beating down on my awning added to the heat from my stove on my face was almost too much, but I came to put up a good showing and that’s what I was going to do.
I added the remaining ingredients including my secret ingredient and just let the chili meld together. It was a beautiful thing! The aroma wafting off of the pot was indescribable. Finally, time was called, and the sponsors sent people to pick up bowls of chili for each of the judges.
The sponsors also sold tickets to individual people. One ticket got you a bowl of chili from a booth of your choice. The more tickets I received, the more votes I got. I was doing well; I was out of chili before they called time. As they announced the winners, I kept hoping to hear my name.
Third place! Nope. Second place! Nope. First place? No. Oh well it’s been an amazing day. Wait, what’s that? People’s choice award! They call my name. That’s enough to keep me going.
I still do chili cookoffs from time to time, but let’s save some stories for another day…. I will reveal to you my secret ingredient, though... unsweetened baker’s chocolate!