Archive | March 2013

The Invisible Win

My brother used to do Century rides. For those who don’t know what that is, he would ride 100 miles on his road bike with groups of other like minded folks at events like Hotter Than Hell. One day he had finished a ride and was meeting his girlfriend’s family for the first time. Phoebe’s brother, Carey, started questioning Robb. “Did you win?” “No” said Robb. “How much money do you get for riding that far?” Robb explained that he, in fact, paid money to do the ride. Carey sat and tried to process why my brother would ride that far, for that long, with no hope of winning, and would pay to do that.

By now, people who do endurance events are laughing. We get it. Others just don’t. I realized that the reasons I do endurance events, the reason my brother rode Century rides, is identical to why I enter cake shows. I do it for myself. I do it for the journey…working on each cake teaches me a bit about myself, about my skills and about my vision for cakes today.

When I tell people not to worry about winning, to just enter, someone always says “why should I go through the time and expense if I won’t win?” Maybe they shouldn’t. Maybe they are like the runner who won’t do the marathon if they think they won’t win. I don’t know. I believe that each race, like each cake show, makes us better. So, why do I ride? Why do I run? Why do I enter cake shows?

Very often there are skills you want to try, but no one will pay you to practice those. Designing a show cake around them lets you practice. Sometimes you have a cake that you are just dying to make. Making it a show cake lets you fulfill that dream. Sometimes you just want to prove to yourself that you can put together a clean, attractive cake. Cake shows let you prove that. Sometimes you want an honest assessment of where you are as a decorator. Cake shows give you that. Sometimes you just want to be able to say that you compete – show the world that you are brave enough to put yourself out there. You become a winner, just by entering.

I may have many regrets in my life, but I have never regretted entering a cake into a show. And I have never regretted showing up on race day. Life, for me, begins just outside your comfort zone. I choose to live fully. I hope that some of you will take that next step and sign up for the National Capital Area Cake Show, the North Texas Cake Show, the MS Challenge in Florida, the Kentucky cake show, the Tennessee Cake Show or the Icing on the Cake Competition in Louisiana. Run the race, not to win, but to prove to yourself that you can. Claim your invisible win. Just do it!

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Learning to Breathe

I grew up in a trailer park. We never had a lot, but I rarely knew I didn’t have it all. I loved the place, especially the pool. I learned to swim in that pool, watching the other kids. I was like a fish. I swam as often as I could, practiced holding my breath under water and swam as though I had no fear. Put me in a lake and I was just as confident. I always considered myself a good, strong swimmer.

What I did not realize until I started really paying attention to the Olympics and until I started training with a swim coach for a triathlon is that I was only a recreational swimmer. I never took classes at the Y or with the Red Cross like many children, so I never learned the fundamentals of swimming. The lack of those basics never would have bothered me were it not for signing up for the Tri.

My sweet coach Ryan is trying to now break me of fifty years of bad habits. He is trying to retrain my brain with the fundamentals. If I did not have a lifetime of doing it wrong, I probably would have picked up his lessons much faster. Like Pavlov’s dog, my body has been conditioned to swim in the least efficient position there is. I always swam freestyle with my head out of the water. I never learned to put my face in the water then to turn it to breathe. My first training sessions resulted in me swallowing a lot of water or, blowing air out when my head was out of the water, turning my head down into the water and realizing that I had forgotten to breathe IN. Crap. Let me choke on some more pool water.

I was driving back from the Pearland Day of Sharing in Texas and I was thinking about my swim lessons. I suddenly realized that this was the perfect analogy for my blog I have long wanted to write about self taught decorators. It is truly odd how often I find parallels between my cake life and my “regular” life. You see, I was a self taught swimmer. I was firmly convinced that I rocked swimming. I had never had anyone tell me I swam wrong, nor did they criticize my form or its results.

I think this is true for many self taught decorators. What they are doing works for them. They wear it like a badge of honor…”I am SELF TAUGHT!” Almost like they are better than folks who take classes. I am sure that I said that a time or two, also. After all. I didn’t have money for classes, so I bought books and studied them. I taught myself to do figures through Anne Pickard’s figure modeling books. I taught myself flowers through Jill Maytham’s black and white flower book. I sat on the front row of demos and watched relentlessly to see how things were done. If we had had YouTube, Pinterest and online cake classes, I would have been addicted.

My friends and family thought I was incredible. They were always so complimentary, even though I now see they were just being nice to me sometimes. When I walked into my first Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show, I took one look at the cakes there, turned around and was headed back to my car. My husband asked me where I was going. I tried to explain that the cakes inside scared me….I couldn’t even imagine how to do those things! My joyful oblivion ended the day I saw just how much I didn’t know. It was on that trip that Rob and I both saw the benefit of studying with someone who knew more than me.

My friend Peggy Tucker says she laughs inside a bit at the term, self taught, because invariably people have watched videos, read books, watched Buddy, Duff or a cake challenge. People rarely learn cake decorating in a vacuum. Instead, their school is just one with virtual teachers. The benefit of live, in person teachers, is that they interact with you. They can watch what you are doing and help you to find a way to do it faster, better or more efficiently. Coach Ryan has adapted the lessons for me each night based upon what I am doing that night in the pool.

Unless a decorator wants to compete at a professional level, test for certification or take their business to the next level, they may never need or want to study with a teacher in person. For some techniques, there is a right/wrong way to do things. Lambeth and Nirvana have a specific look and certain long established guidelines need to be followed for it to truly belong to those genres. Figure modeling, on the other hand, has fewer rules and, therefore, is easier to teach yourself. Even a figure as simple as a ladybug has requirements, however. The figure parts must be proportional, the colors pleasing, the fondant free from cracks, and, in the end, it must be recognized to be a ladybug. A figure modeling teacher could help with that if you failed to excel at one of the areas. Often, we decorators can tell that something is wrong with our cakes, but we just can’t tell what. Sometimes we need that fresh eye to help us see what we need to change.

I should tell you that if you have been doing cakes for a long time and then decide you want to compete – as a self taught decorator, it might be rough at first. I had a decorator at my shop who had done cakes for twenty years. She was fast and could do her standard designs very well. When the gang at my shop signed up for OSSAS, she did, too. She entered with great hopes based upon her speed and experience. She did not place. In the years that I have followed her after she moved away, I would always see her at OSSAS. She would bring several entries, but rarely placed. Her husband once told me they needed a division for her type of decorating. You see, she was a production bakery decorator. She was used to oversized borders, speedy designs and bright colors. Her brain struggled to formulate that cake shows favor intricate, delicate borders, detail oriented designs and less “in your face” colors. She has a lifetime of habits that would be hard to stop doing…just like me and my silly swim.

When self taught decorators take classes, they sometimes end up struggling…not because they aren’t talented enough, but because they are working against their patterned behavior. When I started trying to breathe like Michael Phelps with a proper freestyle pattern, my mind kept getting in the way. My body wanted to swim the way it knew and my efforts to counteract that resulted in my swim looking like Phoebe running through the park in Friends. So embarrassing. I am sure that people at the pool wanted to take up a collection to buy me water wings.

Do I think everyone HAS to study with a live teacher? No. Do I think self taught decorators can run successful bakeries? Of course. Do I think that there is always room for people to improve as decorators? Yes. And I want to be very, very clear….everyone can improve: teachers, students, authors, business owners, whatever you are. No one is perfect at this yet. If your execution of the cake is perfect, I bet it could still be improved with efficiency, better pricing, packaging, branding or some other aspect. We generally excel at certain parts of a cake or the cake business and need to work on our areas of weakness. I could make you a long list of my weaknesses. I can also assure you that I will keep learning until the day that I die.

I still have a long ways to go with the swim. I am trying to relax and not rush the journey. I know that I am building new habits and that it takes time. I feel certain that I will see this through and finally learn to swim a proper freestyle. You might wonder why I even care if it is a proper freestyle…if I can swim, isn’t that good enough? Not really anymore. I will be swimming in the ocean, with hundreds of other people all trying to go as fast as they can around me. I will be swimming a longer distance than ever before. An efficient body position will help me breathe better. It will keep my legs fresh. It will allow me to exit the water with enough energy to go ride 24 miles then do a 10k. I’ve made the decision to not just be a recreational swimmer anymore. I want more.

Remember me talking about the children’s swim classes at the Y? To me that is where you should learn the fundamentals…not by watching other kids in the trailer park pool. For decorators, I think those fundamentals are taught at your Wilton classes and at your local cake supply shops who teach introduction to decorating. How many times have we seen the self taught decorators on Next Great Baker be completely unable to do something basic like a piped border or message? Or worse, icing a cake in buttercream? Those decorators usually said at the start of the show that they were self taught. They missed out on the fundamentals and tried to jump into advanced decorating. They might do ok, but they will always do better if they have the fundamentals in their arsenal.

Wherever you are in your decorating career, I hope that you’ll continue to try to improve, that you will challenge yourself and you will see the need to sometimes seek help from someone in person. My YouTube swimming tutorials and my DVDs never, EVER would have told me that I apparently breathe more easily on my left side than my right. Only a live person could watch me and help me figure out what I could not see myself. I hope that one day someone shares just such an epiphany with you. In the meantime, if you need me, I will be looking forward to taking a certain class in December and I will be in the pool. Learning to breathe.

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Why, Ruth, WHY???

Following my last blog on choosing your division for cake shows, people started asking me why I made certain comments. They started writing my friends to see whether they agreed with me and some wrote to tell me I was wrong. I decided that maybe you guys could use a little clarification on my opinions. And they are just that….MY OPINIONS. I am not saying this is the rule; rather, this is how I have interpreted things for my many years of competing. As I said in my last blog, to know for sure, you have to contact the show directors for the show you want to enter. Every show has different definitions of the divisions. Only the people who wrote the rules can tell you what they truly mean.

WHY DON’T YOU COUNT BEGINNER CLASSES LIKE WILTON?

I had people thinking I was bad mouthing Wilton teachers by saying this and nothing could be further from the truth. Let me start with where my opinions came from and go into more detail from there. When I was first starting to compete, I was talking with a well respected show director for one of the major US shows. She told me that for her show, she did not count demos, days of sharing, or beginning decorating classes like Wilton. Back when we had this conversation, there was no such thing as Internet videos and Online classes.

So why don’t we count these? Remember, we aren’t saying they aren’t valuable or that they aren’t good…we are saying not to count them in determining whether to move up a division. Many decorators have a great fear of being bumped up to the next division. They worry that they don’t have the skills to compete at that level. They consider it a bad thing to have to move to a higher division. Since people consider the classes as counting “against” them, we only want to count the classes that legitimately SHOULD push them higher.

The best way to think of it is that we only want to count the classes that give you more skills, that could enable you to compete at a higher level. Beginner classes just put you on the playing field as a beginner. For that reason, I personally do not count the first two Wilton classes and the introductory classes at many cake supply shops. They INTRODUCE you to the skills and techniques for cake decorating. Those beginning classes should not be used to move you up a division. If you continue on to Wilton 3 &4, you can count those hours towards moving up, since they are teaching you ADVANCED skills.

WHY DON’T YOU COUNT ONLINE CLASSES?

I have written before about online classes and how they can be incredibly helpful. Many of the ones today, especially those from Yummy Arts and Craftsy are well made with quality instructors. They are certainly worth your money. But, should they count “against” you to move you to a higher division? My personal opinion is that they should not. If you just watch the class, it is like watching a demo…you have not done the technique yourself. I have only seen a couple people post on Facebook that they worked alongside the video to create the class project. There is not a teacher there to correct you if you hold your hand the wrong way or do the technique wrong. No one is at your house to tell you if you got it or not. So, use these classes. Learn from them. But I don’t think you have to count them against your class hours when looking at cake show divisions.

WHY DO THEY HAVE TO BE ICES APPROVED TEACHERS?

Oh people, I did not say that…I said that was a STARTING place! You just want to be sure that you are counting classes from respected, knowledgable teachers. I don’t want you to feel like you have to count a class with a teacher that YOU thought was inadequate. I’ve read the students’ thoughts on teachers and know that some of you have taken classes that you believe were a complete waste of your money. For God’s sake, don’t count those. Count the classes that enhanced your skills as a decorator.

WHY DON’T YOU COUNT DEMOS AND YOUTUBE VIDEOS?

Just like with the online classes, you are just watching these things. You aren’t practicing under the supervision of an instructor. These are great and valuable tools to use as a decorator…watch them all! I just don’t think you need to count them against you for moving up a division.

WHY SHOULD I MOVE UP?

You should compete against people at your same competency level. In my opinion, that is what you really want to focus on. If you have very rough, beginning skills, enter Beginner. If you are becoming proficient at several techniques, I think you should look at Intermediate or Advanced. If you are proficient at many skills or do cakes for a living, I think you should enter Professional. If you are a teacher, author or recognized expert, you need to be in Masters. In the end, you are answering to yourself and your conscience. Where do YOU realistically believe your skills fit?

WHO APPOINTED YOU THE PERSON TO TELL US WHAT TO DO?

Not a soul. I never said I was right, only that I was sharing my opinions based upon many years of competing. I know enough to know that I don’t know everything. I am always willing to listen and revise my opinions. I offered my opinions at the request of many people who told me they had trouble figuring out their division. I am just trying to be helpful. If you disagree with me – fine. Do your own thing. That is the beautiful thing about America!

In the end, I get back to my same old preach: enter the cake shows! Attend the cake shows. Support the sugar arts. And thank you for reading my blog and letting me express my opinions.

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An Ode to Vendors

I’ve been attending Days of Sharing, Cake Shows and the ICES Convention for years. I have shopped until I dropped. I have, at rare times, purchased nothing. I try to make a point of thanking the event organizers for all they do. I even try to thank volunteers. The group that I never fully appreciated until I became one, is the vendors. I am certain that I never thanked them for being there.

There is an old adage that you should never judge someone until you walk a mile in their shoes. I started to get a slight peek into the world after convention one year when I helped Nick Lodge and Scott Ewing load their van afterwards. There was a never ending line of vendors carrying boxes and displays and Lord knows what else out to their respective vehicles. That was when I started to pay attention.

I watched as Diego from Fiesta Cake lugged in several boxes and suitcases of goodies in CT. He was given a dolly with a nearly flat tire, but he persevered. I watch Susan Carberry weigh and reweigh her luggage to figure out what she could bring for sale. I watched Ximena from Cakes by Ximena spend hours setting up her products and all of her display pieces. I’ve watched Edward Frys from The Sugar Art come in and be pleasant and helpful to customers even though he drove all night to get to the event.

I never really thought about what it took to be a vendor. I remember a story that Scott Ewing told me once….a customer came up, pointed at an item, and said that she could get it cheaper online. She wanted Scott to lower his price. He said, I had to package and label this product, pack it, get it here, unpack it, display it and now you want me to sell it for less than I have it marked? What a huge point Scott made. The vendor is giving you the convenience of getting your item right then and there. That is worth something. It is unfair to make the vendor feel bad about what they have to charge. Remember, they didn’t have to just pay for the product. They also pay for the overhead at home and the cost of the booth there. They pay for the bag, the label, the shopping bag, the labor to price it/pack it/ unpack it. They may have paid shipping charges to receive it. They certainly had to pay to drive it or mail it to the event.

Think of it like your cake orders. Your customers rarely appreciate all the things that go into the cake on their table. Likewise, we shoppers don’t appreciate what the vendors do for us. I’ve now spent a little time walking in the shoes of a vendor and have so much appreciation for those who do it well. Beautiful booths take hard work and money. Ximena, Nick and Diane Simmons at Cake Connection always seem to go all out. It takes a day just to pack for shows sometimes…maybe even longer.

I have now taken over much of my house when it is time to pack. I spend days putting cutters and veiners into bags, making labels, filling them out and then trying to pack in an organized fashion. I’ve learned to pay for extra baggage fees and to gear up for long drives. I’ve accepted that I don’t get to shop at other booths or visit with friends as much as I used to…I need to be at the booth. So why on earth would I do this? Because my class prices are lower and my enrollment is often lower, so I may not break even if I don’t sell products.

So, since my eyes have been opened to the gifts from the vendors, I want to say Thank You. Thanks for being there when I really needed that tool, fondant or cutter. Thank you for all your hard work before, during and after the event. Thank you for supporting my addiction to sugar art and for always bringing out the latest products to inspire us. Thank you for all the free demonstrations on how to use the products. Thank you for your giveaways, for your newsletters and for your sponsorship of the events. I am grateful.

On a final note, to those of you who have shopped from me over the last year, thank you! You help me get to the locations to offer my classes, which is my true dream.

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Are You My Mother?

I just got home from the Austin cake show (That Takes The Cake). One of the coolest parts of it for me were the sheer number of decorators who came up to me and said they entered because of my encouragement. They had read my blogs and realized that cake shows would die without people bringing cakes. One of the biggest questions I get is from people asking me what division they should enter. Are they Adult Advanced? Professional? Beginner?

Judging this weekend, I saw several instances of people entering below their skill level and/or below their professional level. Did they do it out of ignorance? Maybe. Did they do it out of fear that they weren’t really a “professional”? Maybe. Did they do it to win lots of awards? Makes me wonder….. I decided that maybe you guys needed help figuring out your divisions so that people don’t think you “entered down” in order to win.

Here are the divisions from the recent Austin show.

While the shows are similar, each show will have its own particular guidelines and you need to follow those. I want to walk you through reading these divisions so that you understand how to classify yourself.

Adult Beginner
In Austin, this means you have basic skills (think Wilton first class), have been decorating less than 2 years, have taken less than 30 hours of classes. If you exceed any of these three elements, you should probably move up. If you have only decorated six months, but are a natural and able to make cakes with very few flaws, you aren’t really a beginner in my eyes. I would not say that you had just basic decorating skills. For me, that is the most telling part of the qualifications. BASIC skills. If you know in your heart that your skills are beyond the entry level basics, you need to move up.

Adult Intermediate
In Austin, this was for people with developing skills, 2-4 years of experience and and 30-60 hours of instruction. I judged this division. I was surprised at the people who entered this category, even though their skills were clearly beyond the “developing” stage. This is not a category for anyone who owns a bakery business or who makes most of their income from cakes. It is unfair to the people who really do have developing skills if you walk in with your refined skills and sweep the awards. If a doctor entered the science fair against your child, you would be pissed. Well I am the surrogate mother of the new, developing decorators and want them to only compete against others of comparable skills. “But I’ve only been decorating two years” you say. I understand. But the length of time you’ve been a decorator is not the only guideline. You cannot pick just that to focus on.

Developing skills means that you have moved beyond the Wilton yearbooks and are trying your own designs. You might do a thing or two pretty well, but your skills across the board are still developing. You know that you have a lot to learn and are willing to admit it. You look at the cakes in higher categories and study them to figure out how they did things, because that knowledge is just beyond you for now. If you can look at the work in higher divisions and realize that your work is equal or better than that…then it is time to move up.

This is where my “Are you my mother” symbolism comes in. Just like the little bird, you have to walk up to each category and say “is this the type of decorator I truly am”? Pay particular attention to the skill level descriptions and less to the number of years or hours of classes. I know people who have taken boatloads of classes, but still have developing skills. I know someone whose first cake in her life won Best of Show. I know people who are entirely self taught, yet incredibly brilliant. Those of you holding your hand out to a customer for money for your cakes, would you feel good justifying your price by saying that you have basic skills? Or developing skills? You should not “enter down” just to win a prize.

Adult Advanced
In Austin, this was for people with more refined skills, 4-6 years of experience and 60-90 hours of classes. These are folks who are considered good decorators by everyone who sees their work. They still do it for friends and family, not for a paycheck. They have really gotten the hang of several different techniques. At the lower divisions, someone might be a one trick pony…be good at just one aspect of decorating…not these folks.

Let’s also talk about classes. What counts towards your hours? Wilton classes and other beginner level classes taught at supply stores do not count. Online classes like Craftsy do not count. You only need to count classes with recognized teachers. An easy way to figure that out is to look at the ICES Approved Teacher list. That will give you a good starting list.

Professional
In Austin, this was for decorators with a high level of skill, who have decorated more than six years, have taken more than 90 hours of classes or who work as a decorator. My very first cake show, I had only taken the three Wilton classes and been at the grocery store bakery for a couple of weeks, but had to enter this level at the Oklahoma Show. Was it fair to make me jump all the other levels? Yes. It truly was. I took money for decorating and that made me a professional. I know my skill level wasn’t that high at that time, but it forced me to work harder to do work befitting that division. If you took money once or twice, I probably wouldn’t move you here, but if you get most of your income from doing cakes, you need to enter this division. I personally think that if you have a Facebook or web page dedicated to the solicitation of cake orders, you are a professional.

Masters
In Austin, this was reserved for teachers, authors and people considered experts in the sugar art field. This includes people with more than 120 hours of classes. These decorators are known to have mastered several aspects of sugar art. If you take people’s money as a teacher, we should see you here. I do not include Wilton instructors in this statement, just those teaching advanced sugar art skills. I personally think that if you have a CMSA certification, you need to be in this division. If you have DVDs for sale, this is you. If you sell tutorials online or filmed a Craftsy class, this is you.

I was looking at the Divisions for the upcoming North Texas Show and have to say that I love how they described the divisions. I wish I had seen it before I was almost finished with this blog…but they are awesome. Check them out at http://www.northtexascakeshow.com. They are common sense wordings!

North Texas includes hints for entering. They say that if the category seems like it would be too easy, even though you technically could fit there, then enter the next higher category. If the category seems too hard that you should be in, then enter one lower. You are allowed to move yourself higher at any time. You cannot enter lower than you did prior years.

In the end, you have to do what is right for you. If you aren’t sure, ask the show organizers or someone who regularly judges cake shows. In the end, you have to go with your gut.

I want to end telling you about two seventeen year olds at the Austin show. Tyler Gary entered a spectacular wedding cake in the teen division. Could he have entered a higher category? Yes. With his skill level, he could easily have placed in Adult Advanced or Professional. But he was ALLOWED to enter as a teen and he did. Sidney Galpern, also 17, entered Masters. Why? Because she looked at the categories and knew that it was the right place for her. She teaches internationally. She has her own product lines. She sells DVDs. She is exactly who needs to compete at the master level. The point of this story is that you must look beyond the surface to see where someone really fits. Think about what is fair to you and about what is fair to your competitors.

Wherever you fit, I am glad that you are entering. I cannot begin to tell you how amazing it felt as so many of you came to me at Austin and said you entered because of my encouragement. Together, we are keeping cake shows and the future of sugar art alive!

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