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The competitive edge

(article, Ashley Griffin Gartland)

Do you devote your free time to cooking fanciful meals? Do you tune into every episode of “Iron Chef”? Do you consider cookbooks redundant, because you always make up your own recipes? 

Have you considered entering a recipe contest?

Recipe contests have been an American institution since the 1800s, when agricultural fairs started hosting cooking competitions as a way of attracting female fairgoers. Today, millions of hopeful cooks enter the nation’s more than 100 national and locally sponsored contests every year, as well as the countless smaller contests hosted by state and county fairs. 

[%image recipebox float=right width=250 caption="Creative recipes can win more than a place in a box." credit="Photo: iStockphoto/jgfoto"]

Contest thresholds range from low (entering a recipe in an online contest) to high (elaborate face-to-face cook-offs with other competitors in a big city). Some contests limit entry to industry chefs or home cooks, although few make stipulations about the age, gender, or geographic location of participants. 

Competitions may cover multiple courses (such as the online contest held by Allyson’s Kitchen in Ashland, Oregon, boasting categories for appetizers, soups and salads, entrées, desserts, and à la carte dishes) or narrow their parameters to recipes using a specific ingredient (chicken) or certain brands (California Ripe Olives).

A third version limits the contest to a single dish, requesting the best possible version of favorites like cleverly topped burgers or chewy chocolate-chip cookies. Dish contests are popular with magazines, such as the competitions hosted by Better Homes and Gardens, Cooking for 2, and Cook’s Country. 

Once upon a county fair, recipe contests handed out blue ribbons and kudos. Today’s competitions reward winners with everything from T-shirts and recipe publication in local media to kitchen remodels and trips abroad. 

The contestants vying for these prizes constitute a large subculture of cooks who avidly scour websites and magazines for upcoming contests. Being a good cook alone is not enough, as the key strength of culinary competitors is creativity within familiar flavor parameters. If you simply cannot cook without a recipe to guide you, then recipe contests are not for you.

Successful cooking competitors must not only be interested in cooking but also harbor a drive to succeed, an ability to handle rejection, and a love of good food. Their interest often mushrooms out of cooking habits absorbed in childhood. “When I was growing up, I used to spend summers at my grandparents’ farm in Warrenton, North Carolina; they raised their meat and grew everything,” says Cheryl Perry, a soon-to-be caterer in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, who has entered more than 300 contests over the last three years. “I watched my grandma throw together awesome meals for the farmhands that worked for them and our large family. I thought it was creative the way she could do it and I wanted to do it, too, so she taught me a lot.” 

A background rich with culinary experience generally assures that competitors have mastered basic cooking skills, making for an easy transition to creative cooking. Competitors often try their hands at a broad range of cuisines, though others sometimes specialize in a single genre, such as baking. Some even narrow their focus to a particular dish, developing top talents and winning prizes with a practiced competency. 

Such was the case for Cleveland-based competitor Carole Resnick, a 62-year-old retired woman who hails from a long line of bakers and sent more than 50 entries to the Pillsbury Bake-Off this year. (Also known as “the big dance” among competitors, the Pillsbury Bake-Off is the apex of recipe contesting, drawing contestants from all corners of the nation with its impressive $1 million prize.) 

“My grandmother and her four sisters would hold their version of the Pillsbury Bake-Off every Sunday afternoon. Each Sunday we would meet at rotating homes for a coffee,” Resnick recalls. “Each sister would bring some type of baked good to the table. They would each feel, smell, and taste each of the offerings. Then each would proclaim herself the winner for no prize but boasting rights. So competitive cooking was instilled in my blood at a very early age.”

[%image pillsbury float=left width=300 caption="Contestants at the 2006 Pillsbury Bake-Off. The grand prizewinner, Anna Ginsberg of Texas, is on the right." credit="Photo courtesy Cooking Contest Central"]

But contestants need not be longtime competitive cooks like Resnick to go on the recipe-contest circuit. Contesting experience is less important than cooking talent and, above all, the ability to focus on the fine print, since every contest has precise rules that must be strictly followed. Rules typically address the contest categories, the number of entries contestants can submit, and the proper submission method. Contestants who submit previously published recipes are usually disqualified immediately.

The gateway resource for recipe competitions is Cooking Contest Central, also known as the CCC. Former food journalist Betty Parham founded the CCC a decade ago, back before food blogs and the Food Network had taken over our virtual kitchens. Today, the CCC website, which Parham runs from her home in Lafayette, Colorado, boasts a regularly updated list of contests and, for an annual $25 membership fee, provides an online community for competitors. 

Southern Californian CCC member Mary Edwards — who got some heavy play on the Food Network at the last Pillsbury Bake-Off for her Piñata Pork Roast recipe — can rattle off a long list of CCC benefits. She calls the CCC “a wealth of information and mutual support” and visits the site to browse recipes from past contests, sift through the forum for cooking tips, and pose cooking questions about the competitions. Plus, the site provides access to almost every extant contest in America.

[%image crab float=right caption="Mary Edwards' recipe for Crab Española won an Alaskan Seafood Cook It Frozen contest." credit="Photo courtesy B Alaskan Seafod"]

Veteran contestants from the site are quick to acknowledge that smaller contests are a great way to get into the kitchen and become familiar with competitions and their rules. However, many also claim that the “go big or go home” method can succeed if the contest is a good match with a contestant’s skills and interests.

With a contest in mind, the next order of business is finding a recipe. The variables here are numerous (accessibility of ingredients, the cost of testing it repeatedly, its application to the contest rules, etc.), but Allyson Holt of Allyson’s Kitchen believes that the most important step is to pick a familiar yet distinctive dish. 

“To create a winning recipe, pick a recipe that you, your friends, and family absolutely love. Make it unique, either with signature ingredients, particular types of ethnic cuisine, or a recipe that reflects your own cultural heritage,” says Holt, who’s seen entries ranging from complex (Indian Soya Peanut Salad) to simple (Picnic Potato Salad). 

Other unspoken rules of recipe engagement are: The recipe should be easy to follow. It should use fairly common ingredients. It should have a creative but appropriate name. And, of course, it should adhere strictly to all the rules of the contest. If the rules aren’t clear, don’t hesitate to contact the contest sponsor or post questions on the CCC forum. 

A recipe should also be tested several times to make sure the measurements, cooking times, instructions, and presentation methods are perfectly stated. Read and reread the recipe and the rules before sending it off. 

“You could have the best recipe in the universe and be disqualified on a technicality,” says Edwards. “It’s too easy to make a little mistake that will get you kicked out before you even have a chance.”


h1. The battle of the wooden spoons

Go behind the scenes at the Pillsbury Bake-Off with Salon's take on the scene.

Amy Sutherland's book [%amazonCartLink asin=014200474X "Cookoff: Recipe Fever in America" newpage=true]_ is a deeper exploration of the contesting subculture.  

The deadlines for recipe contests vary; Allyson's Kitchen holds an ongoing contest, while the Pillsbury Bake-Off is an annual spring event, and most magazines hold monthly contests. Check out Cooking Contest Central for schedules and tips on other contests.


Getting kicked out on a technicality or having judges reject a recipe can be a huge disappointment. Successful competitors thus need thick skins, though it’s easy to fall into the trap of getting too attached to a recipe. “Of course our recipes are special to us; they come from our souls and the very essence of our talent,” says Edwards. “But when you start feeling like you have given birth to them, then it might be time to remember that, first and foremost, this is a hobby, and secondly, you absolutely positively never know for sure what any particular judge is looking for that particular day.” 

Win or no win, for many it’s the activity, not the prize, that motivates them. “That many of these cooks, through CCC, have found a hobby that allows them to be creative, tap into their competitive spirit, enjoy themselves, make new friends, and be rewarded for something most do on a daily basis is absolutely the most gratifying thing for me personally,” says Parham. 

Some competitors even find competitions an addictive way to acquire culinary skills. “I feel contesting is like getting an education,” says Minnesota-based schoolteacher Wendy Nickel. “I feel I look more at detail, learn about new products and equipment. But most of all I am just a beginner at this contesting and look forward to more challenges.” Though she’s mastered jelly, jams, and flavored vinegar in competitions, Nickel is still searching for that award-winning banana-bread recipe.


h1. Featured recipes


As Nickel and many others have found, a win might not come until several contests have wafted by. Others win big on their first try, like Iowa resident Karla Myers, whose initial competition entry — a smoky Southwestern chicken sub — landed her a trip for four to Waikiki Beach. 

Some contestants, of course, never win. But the win, after all — trips to Hawaii aside — is merely the icing on the competitive cake.

p(bio). Ashley Griffin Gartland is a Portland-based food writer and the executive director of the Portland Culinary Alliance.

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