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  • CarolJeffers

Steak and potatoes

It was Saturday morning, time to set up my project on the assigned table inside the cavernous field house at the University of Delaware not far from my house in Newark. The place is overrun with other students, nervous, frenetic, roving up and down the rows and rows of tables, arms overloaded with pieces of their own projects.

I was twelve, and when my seventh grade science teacher Mr. Strein, a snarky guy long before the era of snark, told my class about the state science fair, I thought why not? An extra five points added to your grade, he had said, not snide or snarky, he sounded like he meant it.

I liked science fine. How could I not? I was growing up in northern Delaware, where many of my classmates’ dads were chemists and engineers working for DuPont at a time when we were proud to believe there would be “Better Things for Better Living… Through Chemistry.” The nation itself was caught up in the space race and a push for scientific exploration, getting answers to our questions, solutions to our problems. Science made everything possible.

In third grade, my teacher held a science fair in our classroom, and it had been instructive to survey all the projects lined up on the counter. Some were so impressive, professional-looking, clearly guided, even created by the parents’ hand. Others, like mine, were child-inspired and executed. I did something with nests displayed on a board with a report hand-written about birds. Neither my classmates nor my teacher, Mrs. Freibott, seemed to think much of it. I don’t know what scientific question my project was “designed” to investigate. I just liked the nests I had collected at my grandparents’ homes where there were big trees, unlike my neighborhood where the developer had planted a single sapling in front of every tract house.

It was Patricia’s project that got the class’s attention. She had taken a large leafy piece of celery, split it half-way up the stalk and inserted one half in a jar of water and the other in a jar of water dyed red with food coloring. The bushy leaves showed the results, one half of them tinged red. Quite a visual display, but not much exploration, the teacher said. All sizzle, no steak.

The best project of all according to the kids and teacher alike was Cheryl’s. Somehow, she had managed, or with parents’ help, to build a perpetual motion machine. When nine-year old Cheryl stood up to explain her project, why she had undertaken it and what she had learned from it, she nailed it. I still remember something about wrapping wire around… making a battery… putting a metal apparatus in place that moved back and forth, back and forth, back…

I can’t say why I thought about plants for my project when Mr. Strein announced the state science fair to the class. Maybe it was Patricia’s red celery that inspired me. It was potatoes for mine, chunks with eyes placed in three or four of my mother’s dessert bowls, all set in the window where the sun was strong. Potato chunks because the plants would grow to be genetically identical, I explained in the paper I later typed on the manual typewriter a couple of keys at a time. The genetics would be controlled through “vegetative propagation.” Can’t say how I knew that.

I remember using cardboard to block the sun from my bright green potato shoots growing taller and taller by the day. For some reason I have forgotten, I was studying “phototropism,” how plants respond to light, and taking measurements and making notes in a notebook every morning. But the days until the state science fair were numbered, and with one or two to go, I remember a panic overtaking me. My experiment with the potatoes was no better than Patricia’s with the celery. I was showing the effects of phototropism, but not explaining how this “ism” worked. I didn’t yet have a paper to go with my dessert dishes that I planned to set up on a two-tiered shelf I had nailed together using some scrap wood. I had made a sign to go across the board nailed to the top shelf. “How Plants Respond to Stimuli,” it read. Clear, scientific-sounding title all right, neatly-lettered even. But no explanation. No sizzle, no steak.

It was time to pack everything into my family’s red-and-white Plymouth station wagon. But I was still trying to type, stapling together pages, tacking them onto the backboard just below my title sign. At the last second, I found the information about plant hormones. Auxin was the one that stimulated growth on the side of the plant stem away from light, causing that side to grow faster and thus bend the plant toward the sun. Astounding, I thought, feeling my little brain stretch. This is real science.

At my place inside the field house, I positioned my clunky shelves, one of the nails popping out. I pushed it back in, tacked up my report (mostly plagiarized I’m sure now), and lined up the potato plants. Then my mom and I went up and down the rows to see the other projects. So many looked professional, perfect, spectacular. I felt so heavy, my heart sinking into my shoes. Row after row, plod, plod, plod. Overactive parents, it was clear, doing the work. I had done everything myself and didn’t stand a chance.

But wait, there was another home-made project. Not so impressive, not much to look at beyond the papers and jars and the hand-lettered sign across the top, “pH of Stomach.” What did that mean, I wondered, and my mother and I looked at each other, noses wrinkled. I was sure she felt relieved that mine was not the only clunky-looking project in the field house.

Oh well, I thought, and looked forward to a game of kickball in the treeless backyard when we got home. Or maybe a good book. My stamp collection. TV.

It wasn’t long before my mother was calling me to the phone. “Hello,” I said tentatively.

“Congratulations,” I thought I heard a voice say. “…second place… in the junior high division… your school superintendent will be taking a picture with you… for the local paper…” I couldn’t believe it. The photographer and reporter came to the school and took a picture of me and the first place winner, the kid who entered the “pH of Stomach.” He was a ninth grader at my school and had learned to swallow a tube so he could test the pH of the acid in his stomach every fifteen minutes after eating a piece of toast. Astounding, I thought, blown away and honored to be the second place winner to his first. Guess we had some steak even without any sizzle.

Wonder what became of him? And how did I, plant science geek, go on to teach art for 31 years?

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