The Kentucky Derby isn’t for another three weeks, but the race was already on at the Oregon Grain Growers Brand Distillery in Pendleton Saturday.
Dream Catcher Therapeutics, a nonprofit that offers therapy to people with emotional, physical and mental challenges through horse riding and grooming, sponsored a derby-themed chocolate competition among Pendleton’s top restaurants and organizations.
Since the nonprofit reorganized last year, Dream Catcher executive director Morgan Matteson said their client list has grown from three people to 33. Proceeds from the Chocolate Derby would go toward scholarships that would subsidize therapy fees — two-thirds of Dream Catcher’s clients use financial assistance — and maintenance costs at the Dream Catcher ranch south of Pendleton.
Matteson said she was inspired to do the Chocolate Derby from other fundraisers she has attended on the coasts, and although the Kentucky Derby theme fit in with Dream Catcher’s equine mission, she had ulterior motives.
“It’s an excuse to wear a dress and a hat,” she said.
Ladies arrived in sun dresses and sun hats covered in elaborate flower bouquets and lace. Although derby etiquette requires men to don seersucker blazers and straw hats, most of the men who attended the charity event stuck to jeans and boots.
But the star attraction remained the chocolate competition, which featured treats from Alexander’s Chocolate Classics, Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution, Virgil’s at Cimmiyotti’s and more.
Attendees piled their plates high with various cakes and confections like chocolate covered chips from Cimmiyotti’s and espresso brownies from Prodigal Son Brewery & Pub. Their vote for the best entry would go toward a people’s choice award.
The responsibility of determining win, place and show was on the shoulders of a three-judge panel — Donna Biggerstaff, an executive assistant for the city of Pendleton, Umatilla County Commissioner Bill Elfering and Margaret Gianotti, the executive director of the Blue Mountain Community College Foundation.
Although they were sworn to secrecy before the winners were announced, the triumvirate agreed to speak about what made for ideal chocolate.
All three said texture was an important attribute for chocolate. A good chocolate texture produced smoothness and a melt-in-your mouth lightness.
Seated at one of the tables, John and Dena Summerfield and Mireya Wolf sampled the Chocolate Derby’s offerings.
John and Dena said good chocolate balanced bitterness with sweetness, dark chocolate being their personal preference. The trio gave plaudits to EOCI’s mint julep — a mint chocolate cake — and Alexander’s flourless chocolate cake.
The judging panel praised dishes that used other flavors to enhance their chocolate offering, although they agreed that one treat rose to the top. Judge Biggerstaff predicted that the judges’ choice would align with the people’s choice.
In the end, Biggerstaff’s prediction was proven prophetic when EOCI took first place and the people’s choice award, with the Safeway bakery taking second and Alexander’s taking third.
Liza Emory, EOCI food services manager, was on hand to accept the award on behalf of the inmates who made the chocolate mint julep.
Emory said EOCI’s victory was a tribute to the inmates and their work ethic, which led them from chocolate novices to competition winners in a couple of weeks.
“This is beyond inmates,” she said. “They did an incredible job.”
Contact Antonio Sierra at email@example.com or 541-966-0836.