It was an unusual food contest. The top prize was $50,000, but the winner had promised to give the money away. The judge was, by his own admission, a rookie.
Paul Newman, the Oscar-winning actor, was having difficulty playing the role of food contest judge.
Resplendent in a gray suit that highlighted his silver hair and sky-blue eyes, the 66-year-old Newman held a fork in his hand as he alternately stood, then sat, at a table full of food in a restaurant high atop New York's Rockefeller Center.
"Does anybody here," Newman asked in playful yet pleading tones "have any idea how I should do this?"
Much like the film character Butch Cassidy, who learned how to rob banks by trial and error, Newman taught himself how to be a food judge. He took bites of each dish put before him, he made a few complimentary remarks. Then he went back and tasted each dish again.
Newman was picking the winning dish in a recipe contest sponsored by his food company, Newman's Own. The company, started 10 years ago by the actor with writer A. E. Hotchner, gives its after-tax profits to charity. And this contest, promoting a new spicy red sauce, Diavolo, stipulated that both the regional winners, who got $10,000, and the overall winner who, collected $50,000, would give the prize money to charity.
Like the other seven finalists in the contest, Tali Ann Katz of Annapolis was not a professional cook or contest enterer. A training specialist at the Baltimore City Child Care Resource Center on Mount Royal Avenue, Ms. Katz entered the contest after she saw Newman's picture on the cover of a Good Housekeeping magazine she was reading while waiting in a doctor's office. Ms. Katz jotted down a recipe for shrimp, artichoke hearts and feta cheese covered with Newman's spicy sauce and served over pasta.
Ms. Katz's unvarnished tale of how she got to eat lunch with Paul Newman, and Newman's own ad-lib approach to judging, were typical of the mood of the day. Rather than the slick, tightly controlled media event that many recipe contests have become, this one was low-key and loosely organized. It broke many of the spoken and unspoken rules of what is supposed to happen at food contests.
Judges, for instance, are never supposed to taste the entries in front of the contestants. Too many bad things can happen. The contestants' feelings can get hurt. Or they can cry foul because their dish was not "hot enough" or was served to the judge after he had finished tasting a dish that had 40 cloves of garlic.
Yet, as the contestants watched Newman taste their dishes, they traded supportive, if nervous, comments such as, "I think he liked yours."
According to food contest etiquette, the presentation of awards is supposed to move along at a brisk, businesslike clip. Not here. This event moved along at the meandering pace of family talent show.
At one point in the proceedings the contestants trooped to the microphone. Usually in food contests, this is where the contestants talk about the importance of listening to Mom and using the sponsor's products. But this time contestants talked about the good work their prize money was going to do.
Ms. Katz said she was splitting her $10,000 prize money three ways, among the AIDS education effort known as HERO, the Annapolis Chapter of Hadassah for its children's hospital cancer fund and the non-profit child-care organization where she works. (Giant Foods, the retailer where Ms. Katz bought Newman's sauce, received a $5,000 award, which it donated to the Capital Area Food Bank.)
Timothy Conrad was donating his money to the Ohio Children's Hospital, where his wife works as a volunteer. Chris Kissel of Denver was giving her money to the American Cancer Society. Edda Bickler of Coral Springs, Fla., and Christine Loughridge of Felton, Calif., were donating their money to fight colitis, a colon disease. Teresa Lindner's special education class, all 14 of them, from State College, Pa., were donating their money toward the purchase of a van for the local Easter Seal society.
And Geraldine Kirkpatrick from Huntington Beach, Calif., whose chicken breast Diavolo was eventually declared by Newman to be his favorite, and therefore winner of the $50,000 prize, said she was giving the money to Habitat for Humanity.
Noting that former President Jimmy Carter was also a supporter of this effort to build houses for low-income people, Ms. Kirkpatrick compared Newman to the 67-year-old former president, saying they were "two fine gentlemen of my vintage."
The most refreshing departure from contest decorum was taken by the special education class from Pennsylvania. Instead of worshipping the ground that the sponsor stood on, these 14- to )) 18-year olds freely admitted that when they entered the contest they had no idea who Paul Newman was.