Bakers who love being in the dough

Big prizes and the chance to be creative draw many to cooking competitions

March 21, 2007|By Robin Mather Jenkins | Robin Mather Jenkins,Chicago Tribune

It might be the most honeyed phrase a home cook can hear: "This [your recipe here] tastes like a million bucks!"

If it won the Pillsbury Bake-Off, it would taste like a million bucks, because that's the grand prize.

Just ask a prize-winning cook like Josie A.G. Shapiro of Chicago what she has won: "a honeymoon in France!"

Or ask seasoned contest cook Gloria Bradley of Naperville, Ill., what pleased her most: "Impress the kids by appearing in the National Enquirer!"

And there's still more!

A $5,000 prize from the Mushroom Council! $10,000 from! $50,000 from the Cattlemen's Beef Board! And $100,000 from the National Chicken Council!

People who enter cooking contests form an unusual subculture of the food world. They follow a different calendar than the rest of us: At the end of December, when we're getting ready to celebrate New Year's Eve, they anxiously anticipate the announcement of the finalists for the National Chicken Cooking Contest. At the end of September, when so many of us are watching college football, they're holding their breath for a phone call from Pillsbury to say that they're going to "the big one": the biennial bake-off.

They even have their own language. They call themselves "contesters," not contestants, and their activity is "contesting." The recipes they develop use "product," not ingredients. When talking among themselves, you'll hear mutters like "my first beef," "PBO" (Pillsbury Bake-Off) and "at Chicken '06."

Liz Barclay, an assistant principal at Indian Creek School in Crownsville, has competed in more than 100 amateur cooking contests since 1978. Lately, the Annapolis resident has been testing recipes to enter in this year's Pillsbury Bake-Off; she made the finals in 2000 for her Southwestern Chicken Biscuit.

Barclay estimates she has won about $4,000 over her years of "contesting," along with vacations, T-shirts, cookbooks, cookware and kitchen appliances. She does it, she said, for the camaraderie. "There is almost an immediate bond of friendship" among contesters, she said. "I send Christmas cards to many of the people I met in competitions."

Contesters may enter one or two contests a year, or dozens. They may enter every contest they learn about or only national contests with cash prizes above a certain level. They may prefer face-to-face cook-offs or, as Bradley quipped, "the kind of contests where I send in a recipe and they send me a check for $10,000." They may take it as seriously as death and taxes, or they may take a more happy-go-lucky approach. But one thing is certain: Cooking contests are their passion.

Contesters have different reasons for competing. For Bradley, a veteran of 35 years with many wins to her credit, the motive is pleasure: "Ever since I was a child, I loved geography," she said. "I wanted to travel, but with five kids, I didn't have the money. Heck, contesting has paid for all my trips around the world, and I've gone first class."

Contesting is a hobby for some. For others, it is a challenge to be creative. "I love inventing recipes, and it is a neat way to get me thinking about new ingredients and different techniques," said Shapiro. "I would never have thought to put hazelnuts in meatballs, but when there was a meatball contest, it pushed me to think about them in a different way." (The idea won her $2,000 in travel vouchers from Ballo's Meatballs in 2005. Another Shapiro creation won a Red Bicyclette wine contest, earning her a 25-day trip to Provence, France, just in time for her wedding the same year.)

Creativity and prizes only partly explain why tens of thousands of people enter the Pillsbury Bake-Off, said Onju Sturlaugson, promotions manager at General Mills, which sponsors the competition.

"Others may have heard about the contest from a past finalist and are motivated by the chance to win a trip, enjoy the once-in-a-lifetime experience of the competition itself and become a bit of a celebrity in their communities," Sturlaugson said.

Whatever their reasons, contesters pursue their interest with the same single-mindedness of a kid with a frosting-covered beater. Sometimes, they pass the interest on to kids or grandkids. Bradley's grandson Brian won $15,000 in a contest that bought him a new computer and paid for part of his college costs.

The interest is growing, too. "We get 40,000 hits a day," said Betty Parham, editor of, a subscription Web site nicknamed "Cooking Contest Central." Parham, a retired Atlanta Journal-Constitution food columnist, has edited the site for 10 years. Members pay $25 a year for access to special content.

"When we started, there were maybe 10 contests listed at any one time. Now every week, we're adding eight or 10, small or large. Right now, we have more than 100 contests listed, with deadlines in about 50 of them," she said. (Some standing contests don't have deadlines because awards are given periodically.)

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