Better Than Money or Fame


What in the world was I doing in Miami Florida, poor and alone in a rich and sophisticated place?

It was thirty years ago, and I was a finalist in the Pillsbury Bake-Off.

I had entered three recipes, and remarkably, I was chosen as a finalist, out of thousands of entries. I remember clearly the voice of the woman on the other end of the phone.

"Congratulations! You are a finalist in the Pillsbury Bake-Off."

"No. Who is this, really?" I asked, totally dumb-founded. She laughed as I insisted on calling back and verifying. Wow! It was true! I really was a finalist. I was ecstatic. How could this be happening?

Pillsbury flew everyone to Miami. Then they whisked us away to the famous Fontainebleau Hilton in Miami Beach. I was stunned just to be there in the fabulous surroundings. The food was incredible, and the settings like nothing I had ever seen. Nothing could top this, I thought, but I was about to learn one of the greatest lessons of my life.

The waiters and waitresses were all Cuban, and they spoke not a word of English. I couldn't help but notice anger in their expressions. It was not long before I understood why.

They were ignored as though they didn't exist. No one even gave them a smile. I quickly lost my appetite and barely touched my food. I tried, with difficulty, to keep up with the questions of a very nice Vice President of a Pillsbury subsidiary. I was unsuccessful, but it didn't matter, because I was now a witness to the painful struggle of refugees from another land.

Were the refugees as overwhelmed as I? Did they feel as out of place, surrounded by wealthy people, who had no idea of what it was like to have nothing? Our situations were different, yet I felt that we were very much alike. I didn't know what to say to the people around me, and neither did they. I didn't understand the chatter, almost as much as they.

All of a sudden, I decided to do something about their situation. I wanted desperately to make them feel visible, important, and welcome in their new country.

From somewhere deep inside of me, I began pulling out rusty expressions from my four years of high school Spanish. I could only remember a few phrases in their language, yet with that first phrase, "Gracias," I beheld a remarkable transformation. Warm, brown faces took on a shocked and delighted glow.

"De nada!" My delighted waiter replied. "It was nothing," he said, in halting English.

So it began, my bad Spanish communicating with another's bad English. I was enchanted by the happiness I saw in their faces. Did they feel more welcome in their new home? I hoped so.

After breakfast we were led into a converted ballroom. A hundred stoves and refrigerators were packed inside. We had just a few hours to complete our recipes, twice. One entry for pictures and one for the judges, who were kept in seclusion. I was one of the first contestants finished. Exhausted, I went up to my room to rest, greeting many smiling Cubans along the way.

That evening we were treated to a huge award ceremony dinner. No one ate much, and as they began to name the winners, there was sporadic applause from their family and friends. If I were a winner, I thought sadly, there would be no one to applaud for me.

I was amazed when I heard my name called out. As I stood, the room erupted in thunderous applause.

What in the world?! I turned to look, and I saw dozens of smiling Cubans, waving and cheering for me. Stunned, and blind with tears, I reached out for my prize.

Bob Barker handed me my check and said, "You must have a lot of friends."

"I do now," I smiled, choking back tears. In that brief moment, I understood that my "prize" was neither money nor my fifteen minutes of fame. My true reward, I told my children later, was in learning that one small kindness can bring unexpected return.

Jaye Lewis jayelewis@comcast.net

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