Deb Martin Berkoski − Queen of the Fair

Deb and her mother, Dorothy M. Martin, have dominated the baking contests that are held in conjunction with fairs and farm shows on both the local and state levels for the last two decades. To date, they are the winningest duo on the state level. “Competing is one of my addictions,” Deb says.

Deb Martin Berkoski

A 100-pound weight loss enabled Deb to drop six dress/pant sizes. “I have so much more energy now,” she reports. In addition, Deb was able to eliminate her meds regimen. Makeup by Judelyne St Riel.

A 100-pound weight loss enabled Deb to drop six dress/pant sizes. “I have so much more energy now,” she reports. Makeup by Judelyne St Riel.

Two years ago, Deb decided to conquer her other addiction: food. “It wasn’t pretty,” she says of her health. “I had exercise-induced asthma and had to use an inhaler. I was on meds for GERD [acid reflux]. My cholesterol was high. I had arthritis, and my knees were killing me. My blood pressure was starting to go up, and I knew meds would be next. But the clincher was the diabetes diagnosis. That was definitely a wake-up call. I knew I had to do something. Fortunately, I didn’t have any heart issues … yet.”

Her job as maintenance supervisor at Long’s Park made Deb all the more aware of her health issues. “The Sertoma Chicken Barbecue, Fourth of July concert and fireworks show, and the Art & Craft Festival are crunch times around here,” she explains of the increased workload that accompanies such events. “I’d come home feeling terrible; my knees would be throbbing. My husband was really concerned,” she recalls. One year, in the days leading up to the barbecue, she wore a pedometer to satisfy her curiosity. “One day, I did 30,000 steps,” she explains. “The average is 10,000.”

Deb also helps to run the family farm in Conestoga. “I’m excited to be a part of agriculture,” she says, noting that her competitive streak began with sheep. “I showed sheep through high school,” she reports. Now she is perpetually preparing for baking contests. “A lot of people ask me why I don’t open a bakery,” she remarks. She answers that question by observing that turning a hobby into a business rarely works. “Besides, I’d lose my amateur status for competitions.” She does have an unfulfilled goal. “I’d like to do a cookbook,” she shares.

Nature vs. Nurture

Deb did two things in order to educate herself about her past and future: She explored her genetic makeup and signed up to attend a surgical weight-loss seminar at the Physicians Healthy Weight Management & Bariatric Surgery Center at Lancaster General Health.

“I was adopted,” Deb says in a matter-of-fact manner. “I’m the youngest of three; we were all adopted. My parents, Dorothy M. and [the late] Melvin H. Martin, were always open about us being adopted,” she explains. “They always reassured us by saying, ‘We chose you.’” Deb and Dorothy instantly bonded. “I like to say that my birth mother carried me for nine months, while Dorothy, who I consider to be my real mother, has carried and supported me for 49 years.”

Deb and Dorothy found a special connection in the kitchen. “I started cooking with her from the time I was little,” Deb says. As was the case with many Lancaster County families, mealtime at the Martin household centered on meat and potatoes. “My mother made the best fried chicken,” Deb says, noting it was often accompanied by waffles, mashed potatoes and gravy. There were lots of fresh vegetables, too. Yet, it never occurred to Deb that old-fashioned home cooking had unhealthy connotations. “I ate whatever was put on my plate and often had seconds,” she recalls of gathering around the table with her family for three square meals a day.

Mother and daughter also forged a connection through baking. Pies and cakes became their forte. “Baking is a science, and I consider my mother to be the grand scientist,” Deb says. “She can just look at a recipe and tell you what needs to be tweaked.”

Deb, on the other hand, is the creative force. Her pies and cakes are something to behold. “Before you even taste something, you need to eat it with your eyes,” she theorizes. (She made her own wedding cake and decorated it with 3,000 flowers she made from sugar.) She also figures that a visually stimulating dessert will make a first and lasting impression on judges.

After 20 years of competing, Deb has developed a winning strategy. She says that buying the best ingredients is critical to success (no matter if you’re making a birthday cake for a family member or competing in a contest). “A judge will taste just a sliver, so it needs to make an impression,” she explains. However, in Deb’s opinion, “creativity is what sells it. It could come down to a matter of one point, and creativity could be that difference between first and second place. That’s why I’m always chasing the next big thing.”

Of course, the ultimate prize is a blue ribbon (and a cash award that sometimes accompanies it) at the Pennsylvania Farm Show, which was held for the 100th time last month. Many of the baking contests require a win at the local level in order to compete in Harrisburg. “Sometimes it’s more difficult to get out of Lancaster County than it is to win in Harrisburg,” she admits, referring to the talented bakers she must compete against on the local level in order to get to the Farm Show. And, it can be a frustrating odyssey. Last fall she chased the blue ribbon in the chocolate cake category. “It took me eight tries to qualify for the Farm Show,” she notes. “I finally won on my last try in New Holland.” She and her mother are both chasing after the angel food cake category on the state level. “We’ve both taken second place,” she says. “That one’s eluded us.”

Deb says she was always curious about her genetic makeup. “I was always the ‘big girl,’” she shares. “I wondered where my size 12 feet came from and why I am almost six-feet tall.” Fortunately, the Martins’ attorney provided them with information about Deb’s birth mother. They shared the information with Deb, and she contacted her mother so that she could obtain answers to her questions. The meeting resulted in Deb discovering her mother is diabetic and her grandmother died of complications associated with the disease. She also met her father. “He’s a big guy, so that answered those questions,” Deb says. She also formulated the answer to the age-old question of how much nature versus nurture affects a person’s path in life. “For me, I’d says it’s 5% nature and 95% nurture,” Deb states.

Now or Never

In 2014, Deb attended one of the informational seminars that is offered at the Lancaster General Health Physicians Healthy Weight Management and Bariatric Surgery Center. Fortunately, her health insurance covers bariatric surgery procedures. But, as she soon learned, it’s not as simple as signing up for elective surgery. “Prior to surgery, you must adhere to a structured lifestyle for three months,” she explains of the required diet and exercise regimen. Psychological issues are also addressed. Two weeks prior to surgery, a patient subsists on a liquid diet. “That fell over the barbecue,” Deb notes. “It killed me not to be able to eat that chicken!”

Deb and her surgeon, Dr. James Ku, who is the center’s director and has performed more than 2,000 bariatric surgeries, agreed she would be a good candidate for a procedure known as Sleeve Gastrectomy. Essentially, the stomach is stapled into a tube-like shape that’s roughly the size of a banana. The portion of the stomach that secretes ghrelin, which is the hormone responsible for triggering hunger pangs, is affected, thus allowing the patient to feel satisfied over a longer period of time.

For Deb, “It was now or never.” Following surgery, she lost 100 pounds over the course of 120 days. “Then, I stopped losing,” she reports. But, she’s happy with her new self. She lost six dress sizes and gained a new lease on life. “I have so much more energy now,” she says. The best news of all is that she is medication free. “I’m off all my meds!” she says.

And, she doesn’t feel deprived food-wise, explaining. “I can eat pretty much what I want, but in moderation, although I do miss crusty bread with melted butter on it.” She learned that what and how much you eat have both physiological and psychological ramifications. “Twenty-five percent is based on what they did to you,” she says, referring to the past. “Another 25% is what you actually put on your plate. The other 50% has to do with your head and heart.”

Grazing has become a new lifestyle. “I have to get 65 grams of protein in each day, so I always have nuts, cheese and yogurt with me. I eat a lot of chicken,” Deb explains. She also relies on supplements to provide needed vitamins and minerals. “I can’t eat enough to get what’s required,” she explains. The supplements serve to remind her that “I’ll be a patient for life.” But that’s fine with Deb. She shares that she recently attended a work-related seminar at Penn State. “For the first time in my life I noticed that I wasn’t the largest person in the room,” she says. “I looked and felt like a normal person.”

When other competitors learned of Deb’s decision to undergo bariatric surgery, they assumed she would bow out. “That’s not happening,” she says. “I just have to make the pies and cakes; I don’t have to eat them.”

For more information about the weight management and bariatric surgery options at Lancaster General Health or to enroll in an upcoming seminar, visit Lancastergeneralhealth.org or call 544-2935.  

Raspberry Pecan Grilled Chicken Dinner Salad

Raspberry Pecan Grilled  Chicken Dinner Salad

Raspberry Pecan Grilled
Chicken Dinner Salad

Protein is an important component of Deb’s post-surgery diet. This salad is rich in protein and so much more. Chicken, of course, is an obvious source of protein. The pecans provide a plethora of nutrients, minerals and vitamins, are rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, and are an excellent source of phenolic antioxidants, which help to decrease total and LDL (bad) levels of cholesterol in the blood and increase HDL (good) levels. Red raspberries contain anthocyanins, which contribute to heart health. Heart-healthy blue cheese (due to its goat milk base) also has anti-inflammatory properties. Finally, the spring mix is low in calories, contains very little sodium and is rich in nutrients.

Red Velvet Cake

Red Velvet Cake

Red Velvet Cake

How did red velvet cake become an American obsession? According to a recent article in the New York Times, red velvet has evolved beyond cake and now lends itself to scented candles, air fresheners, body mists, protein powders, latte and tea flavors, ice cream, whoopie pies and vodka. In

San Francisco, the restaurant/bakery American Cupcake even offers a chicken dish in which parts are dipped in red velvet batter and then rolled in red velvet crumbs before they are fried.

Red velvet is rooted in the 1870s, when cakes took on a velvety texture. As for the red hue, its development is part science, part urban legend and part entrepreneurial spirit of post-Depression America. Early on, chocolate – or devil’s food – cakes had a red cast that resulted from a chemical reaction among ingredients: namely buttermilk, vinegar and cocoa. Still others used beet juice to add a red tint to their chocolate cakes.

As for the urban legend angle, culinary-related websites are rife with people who swear their grandmothers or people their grandmothers knew (of course, all are long gone) visited New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel in the 1930s and were captivated by the hotel’s signature red cake. A woman reportedly asked for the recipe. The chef complied with her request. When it arrived in the mail, it was accompanied by an invoice (for anywhere from $300 to $100,000, depending upon the source). Miffed, she began sharing the recipe with everyone she knew. The entrepreneurial side of the story involves John A. Adams, who founded Texas-based Adams Extract & Spice Company in 1888. Hoping to drum up interest for its food extracts, the family-owned business devised a recipe for red velvet cake by adding two bottles of red dye to an established cake recipe, and replacing the butter with shortening and butter-flavor extract. The taste-tempting cake was photographed for marketing purposes. Complimentary recipe cards emblazoned with the Adams logo were readily made available to shoppers who frequented grocery stores in the South and Midwest. Company-sponsored baking contests followed, resulting in red velvet cake becoming a nationwide taste sensation in the 50s and 60s.

During the 70s, a controversy regarding Red Dye #2 led to the cake’s near demise. But then in the late 80s, a little movie called Steel Magnolias piqued new interest in the cake. The 1996 opening of the Magnolia Bakery in New York introduced a new generation to the magic of red velvet cake. The bakery lists “a little southern mystery” as one of its ingredients; cream cheese frosting also helped to give it a new spin. However, in this area of the country, red velvet has never waned in popularity, prompting one person to comment on gilttaste.com: “The Amish in Lancaster County have been making it for years.” Deb’s red velvet cake, which has won blue ribbons county-wide and at the state level.

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