Entering a cooking contest? Don't play dumb -- play fair.
That's the word from contestants and event coordinators alike. With deadlines drawing near for a continuing parade of recipe contests, it's time to have a look at the ins and outs of entering.
Winning, or at least becoming a finalist, is a major goal for any serious contestant. Starting with an "original" recipe is the first, and often most elusive, goal.
Scandal recently put a finer point on the ethics of cooking contests. After a first-time contestant from Ohio walked away with $25,000 and an expense-paid trip to Tokyo as grand-prize winner in the National Chicken Cooking Contest, a fussy little hitch came to light. Judith Markiewicz, a food science major at the University of Akron, had won with a recipe published a year earlier in Bon Appetit magazine. She had altered the recipe only slightly.
"Because of that, the whole issue of being sure of the origins of your recipe has come into focus," says Marlene Johnson, director of product communications for Pillsbury. "People want to know how to improve their odds of winning, and the most important thing they can do is to make sure it's really their own recipe."
Originality is a major hurdle where recipes are concerned. Battles have raged for years, as published recipes reappear in books or articles by other authors. Cynics may insist that there's nothing new under the sun, but that doesn't wash among contest organizers.
"True, it's difficult coming up with an entirely new recipe -- but it can certainly be done," says Dot Tringale, spokesman for National Broiler Council, the organization that fell victim to the repeat-recipe fiasco.
It's done, she and others argue, by making real changes in a recipe.
"A lot of people say that if you change three ingredients, you can call it a different recipe," Ms. Tringale says. Legal interpretation regarding recipe copyright remains vague, but the "three significant changes" approach is generally accepted as criteria for creating a new recipe.
But before you start grinding out recipes that sound good on paper, heed this Absolute No. 1 rule: Your recipe must taste good AND work.
Hanna Foxe, editor for the Blue Ribbon Cooks' Newsletter based in Alhambra, Calif., says that a newly written recipe with all the imagination in the world wins nothing but scorn if the cooked results are unsuccessful.
"Some of the contest winners do not try their recipes ahead of time," Ms. Foxe admits, adding that those who don't test usually are seasoned cooks who have a second sense for the chemistry and technology of cooking. "For most people, though, it's important to try it out on your family, get their opinions, and keep refining it before you send it in.
"There's more than one contestant who got to a cook-off before finding out it didn't work. And that's terribly embarrassing."
Spotting stolen recipes isn't easy, given the legions of books, newspapers and magazines publishing them. During the mid-1980s, a vigilant judge at the chicken cook-off spotted a finalist's dish that was nearly identical to one in a recently published cookbook by New York Times columnist Pierre Franey.
"You'd be amazed," Pillsbury's Johnson says. "Over the course ofscreening, then judging, someone's apt to say, 'You know, I'd swear I've seen that somewhere.' " Suspicion of duplication may not be enough to disqualify an entry, but in competitions where innovation is a factor such rehashing may spell doom.
Some recipes do get recycled, unintentionally.
"We recognize that lots of people enter [published] recipes innocently," Ms. Johnson says. Some previous winners of major contests become so popular, versions appearing in scores of church or community cookbooks, that they attain nearly folkloric stature.
"Your 'Aunt Jane's Dill Bread' may have been Dilly Casserole Bread, the 1960 [Pillsbury] grand-prize winner," Ms. Johnson says.
Ironically, the winner of the chicken cook-off did not cheat -- at least, not technically. National Broiler Council had previously dropped the "originality" rule due to the complexity of spotting previously published recipes. What she had done, however, flew in the face of ethics and flaunted Bon Appetit's copyright.
"Our rules for the 1991 contest just said, 'Entries need not be original; contestants are solely responsible for complying with any applicable copyright restrictions, and the NBC assumes no obligation in that regard,' " Ms. Tringale says.
Since the furor over this year's contest, Ms. Tringale says National Broiler Council officials made one significant change in their rules:
" 'Entries must be original. 'Original' is defined as not previously published in the same or substantially the same form. Contest finalists will be required to certify that the recipe entry is 'original.' "
Veteran contest winners think the theft of recipes is wrong on more than one front. Inherent illegality is a major concern, but there are other repercussions.
"In the first place, it's not fair. And in the second place, you can get caught very easily," says Chicago homemaker Josephine DeMarco who, at 81, may rightfully call herself the godmother of cooking contestants. Her litany of wins, including three trips to the Pillsbury Bake-Off (in 1976 she took $5,000 top prize in the flour category) seems to exceed the recipes in the average cook's Rolodex.
"It [stealing recipes] is an awful thing to do," she says during a break from developing new hamburger sandwiches she's entering in a "build a better burger" contest.
"Sometimes it just takes one to spoil everything," she says.