A pot of bean soup was just the beginning

When Ilene Holcomb entered a cooking contest, she had no idea how things should be presented or how the actual contest worked. She knew the foods had to be presented in an attractive way, but she never dreamed the cost and the extremes that some of the contestants would take.

She followed her simple taste and used what she had. This, in truth, was one soup ladle that had belonged to a forgotten relative. She bought a square of green satin and a tureen at a yard sale for 25 cents and felt she was on her way. It was only when she arrived at the contest site that she realized the presentation was just as important as the flavor and texture of the soup. She gathered her good self-opinion about herself and decided to make do with what she had.

The big day fell on a Saturday. So, on Thursday, she made the soup and gave it a few extra hours to permit the beans to get to know the onions, which met the spices and together formed a flavor that was to bring great rewards to this woman who had never even considered entering a cooking contest before this fateful day.

Her heated soup was poured into the glamorous tureen, the lid dropped into place, and she began her long wait. The judges ambled from one type of food to another. They perused molded salads, vegetables cooked in a tagine or any other type of unusual vessel, the meat prepared the old way with white gravy and the new way of quick cooking and fast drowning in rare and piquant sauces.

She waited, and all of those beans that had become allies with the other ingredients were getting colder and colder, and she was sure the beans hated the onions and the spices were absolutely detested and had taken on a brassy flavor as a result of the low temperature of the soup. Even her beautiful tureen had a shabby look, and the lovely satin had developed a kind of seasick pallor. She was considering picking up everything and walking out when the first judge appeared.

With a curt nod, he lifted the tureen lid, scanned the soup with a careful look, then did the same thing again and nodded to the next waiting judge. This one was the final judge, the one who made the big decision, of course after conferring with the fellow who had been first.

The lid was lifted. He leaned over the soup, smelled, cupped his hand and as if to lift the scent right up to his somewhat enlarged nostrils that had surely developed from smelling food all over America. He put the lid back, he turned as if to leave, and then he came back and again lifted the lid, cupped his hand and this time raised his head toward the ceiling and smiled. The judge actually smiled as if he had encountered a pleasant vision. He turned again and walked away.

After the soup inspection, which was the last to be judged, the honored ones moved toward the front of the room. They conferred some, gesticulating and nodding in agreement or disagreement. Finally, the contestants were told that the results were in, and the third prizes were awarded in the different categories: salads, meats, vegetables and all of the sauces and condiments that were considered. At last, the soup prizes were announced. There was a $50 award, a $25 award and then honorable mention. Ilene's name was announced for winning the $50 prize. She was so proud of her 25-cent tureen and her satin. Then she heard a great drumroll, and the first-place prize winner was to be honored.

She was packing up, excited about her win and half listening when she heard, "The first prize goes to the soup section."

She stopped packing, and then she heard, "Mrs. Ilene Holcomb is the first-prize winner with a check for $2,500."

"Hum," she thought, "Mrs. Holcomb won."

"Mrs. Holcomb," she awakened. "That is me," she said aloud. She raised her hand, and the two judges walked toward her holding a small piece of paper and a big certificate. The judge, who rolled his eyes from one side to another, actually smiled, and the one who had smelled shook her hand and said, "Ma'am, your soup is delicious, it is pretty, and you are first-rate chef. Use your talent."

And she did. She and her husband, Carroll, bought some sweet acreage, Hidden Acre Farm, and built a delightful house and a barn where they sell all of her delicious mixes that make homemakers well known for their wonderful meals and party offerings.

There are dips, which are so easily made that holidays are no longer daunting. With a little sour cream and mayonnaise, one can whip up in a minute or two. They include cucumber, nacho cheese, bacon and onion, and a dozen or more other enticing dips and little bowls of exciting foods to delight your guests.

A tropical fruit dessert cheese ball will make you famous throughout the neighborhood. Serve it with a small glass of wine or use it as a desert with coffee after a wonderful meal.

Ilene and her $2,500 bean soup have truly spread her good food wings, and now she shares all of her talents with the folks who love to eat, too.

Her soup mixes are well known throughout a few counties. Mom's Potato Soup probably tops the list. Country Cheddar and Potato and Bacon Soup is the best for a cold afternoon.

If you want to thrill your family, simply buy a bag of Hannah's Shrimp and Grits. Buy a pound of shrimp, read the directions and cook. Then just sit back and wait to be appreciated, it is a treat for the taste buds.

After dinner, serve an easy no-bake Pumpkin Spice Pie Mix. Oh, my, if we lived in cold country, you would certainly be sporting a little mink jacket after serving gourmet treats like these.

There are so many things to write about but as usual, space is my Waterloo. You can go and see the barn and meet the Holcombs and peruse all of the enticing foods that are so nicely packaged, easily cooked and make stunning gifts. They are having a sale from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday, Nov. 30, and from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 1.

The address is 3838 Saluda Road, or you will probably recognize it more easily if you just go to 3838 S.C. 72. The telephone number is (803) 329-0619. Carroll or Ilene will gladly give you easy directions right to the barn door.