High school classrooms become battleground for student competition.

Earning a blue ribbon in her first cooking contest encouraged Sami Henricks to perfect her culinary skills.

A year later, the 12-year-old from Rogue River hasn't logged enough kitchen time to effectively dispatch an onion.

"Is there an easier way of peeling this?" she asks, chipping off the brown, brittle skin bit by bit.

"I'm letting you struggle with it," says 4-H club leader Lynn Gladman.

That's because Sami is immersed in a timed practice session for this weekend's 4-H Food Preparation Contest. Gladman is the mock judge, charged with critiquing Sami's technique and sanitation, which will compose about half of her final score.

"4-H cooking is not like going home and cooking dinner," Gladman says. "They will really concentrate on your efficiency."

Yet Sami's use of a Pampered Chef mini chopper for the onion isn't likely to hamper her success, says Gladman, 4-H's food superintendant. Judges, she says, like to see contestants trying out new pieces of equipment. Sensitive sinuses, however, made Sami's choice an easy one.

"This is horrible," she says, dabbing her eyes with a dish towel.

Sami is one of the approximately 50 members of Jackson County's 4-H clubs who enter the annual event, says Anne Manlove, 4-H agent at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center in Central Point. Every 4-H'er participating must complete a post-cooking interview with the judges and set a table. Themes are strongly encouraged.

"There's a lot more going on than learning to prepare a meal," Gladman says.

Some kids take themes to the extreme, Gladman says, describing how one of her club members, a 13-year-old girl, will don a kimono this year while preparing her Asian dishes. In a previous competition, another club member sewed her own Colonial-era costume to wear while cooking an assortment of early American specialities.

"It's quite entertaining," Gladman says. "There's always the contestant that forgets the critical ingredient."

Or they forget some necessary piece of kitchen equipment. Each contestant must bring a box of ingredients and supplies, which usually includes just about everything except the kitchen sink. The only items provided for contestants' use are the stove, oven, microwave and refrigerator.

"You'd be surprised how much equipment you have to haul," says Crystal Gierloff, whose 12-year-old daughter, Madison, and 10-year-old son, Pierce, are competing.

"There's no fall-back."

Pierce Gierloff, a fourth-grader at Mae Richardson Elementary School in Central Point, is among the contest's youngest competitors and the growing number of boys participating. About a third of contestants are boys, Gladman says, an enormous increase from the 1960s and '70s when she participated locally in 4-H.

"Everybody eats; everybody needs to cook," she says.

Boys have proven, too, that they cook with the best. Gladman's son John, now 18, was several times a grand champion with his farm-to-table pot pie, incorporating meat from a rabbit he raised and adapted from a recipe for rabbit stew.

"He probably cooks better than most girls his age," Gladman says.

Recipes also have become more elaborate over the years, says club leader Tamara Hammond, who recalls fixing scrambled eggs with cheese as a 4-H'er in the 1970s and '80s.

"It's pretty intense now compared to then," says Hammond, whose 13-year-old daughter, Rozi, is competing for the fourth year.

Nutrition, Hammond says, also has become a more prominent factor, for which information is readily available on the Internet.

"They have a lot more resources at their fingertips than we did in the '70s."

Coho salmon, T-bone steak, chocolate souffle and spinach calzone baked in homemade dough are just a few dishes on this weekend's menu. Provided contestants complete their recipes, judges sample the results, leaving plenty left over for contest observers.

"That's the good part," Rozi Hammond says.

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com.