Friday, November 25, 2005

Cookoff (Amy Sutherland)

"The lemon pie has taken second place in the presentation category." Jim walks by as the TV narrator says this, and he laughs so hard I'm afraid he's going to fall over. He repeats the next thing he hears in the voiceover's same measured, earnest tone, "The most popular category is apple with 14 entries." I'm watching Food Network's show Challenge--this particular episode is about a national pie contest in Celebration, Florida, and I'm completely hooked. Will the tiny old lady who grows her own pumpkins for her fresh pumpkin pie take home a blue ribbon? I hope it's her and not the woman who traveled far and entered 11 pies because I find the second woman quite bossy. In each episode, Challenge chronicles competitive food challenges from professional pastry competitions to BBQ cookoffs. My favorite one, though, is the pie episode. I really like pie.

Amy Sutherland, a newspaper reporter, found herself at the National Pillsbury Bakeoff, to cover the story of a contestant from her local area. Once there, she was curious about the different contestants, the competition circuit, and intrigued by all the amazing stories she heard. Even though amateur cookoffs veer more toward casserole fare (with preprocessed foods as main ingredients), the prizes are immense ($1 million grand prize at the Bakeoff, $50,000 at National Beef, expensive kitchen supplies, and even a year's supply of sauerkraut--though I'm not sure how much that would be) and the contestants come from all income brackets and professions. In Cookoff, Sutherland travels the contest circuit during 2001, following both the contest newbies and the "contesters," the official name for those seasoned cookoff veterans for whom the cookoffs have become an obsession.

One of my favorite cookoffs mentioned was National Beef, where each contestant gets their own hostess, a middle-aged Arizona Cowbelle, a cattlewoman who will be their personal guide through the contest, give them tote bags filled with pro-NRA, pro-Republican literature (with titles such as "Endangered Species Act Train Wreck"), and who, in case an animal rights protestor sneaks into the cookoff, stresses the contest supervisor, will "know what to do." And if that's not strange enough, there's also a chili cookoff in Terlingua, Texas, where ladies who look like your grandma can drink you under the table.

My only complaint about the book has to do with a small layout issue: for each cookoff Sutherland covers, she gives the winning recipe at the end of that chapter (which is very close to where the big who's-going-to-win moment takes place). If you don't want the who's-going-to-win moment ruined, then I suggest that when you see the recipe format, cover that page with your hand while reading the announcement of the prizes.

I have to admit by the end of the book, I was trying to concoct my own million dollar recipe for the Pilsbury bakeoff. I had quickly learned from the book, however, that I clearly do not eat like the average American (i.e., recipes that use a lot of spinach tend not to win because they are not "family friendly." I love spinach!) But I can still keep the dream alive and I could be a spectator at a couple of the cookoffs mentioned in the book that take place near me: The Gilroy Garlic Festival and the Sutter Home Build a Better Burger. I'm already planning a small trip in July down to Gilroy for this upcoming year's garlic festival. Jim, a big fan of garlic, has agreed to come along. For now, though, he keeps repeating "The lemon pie has taken second place in the presentation company," laughing harder each time he says it.

Special contest!
Cookoff was not available at my local library, and it's a book I've been trying to find at libraries for a couple years without too much luck. I happened to find it at a large remainder sale (and no Dean, we did not see your book there) where I purchased it at a very reasonable price. I will send this brand new hardcover to the first person who posts a comment with the answer to this question: What was the grand prize winning recipe at the very first Pillsbury Bakeoff?

Other good books: Susan Orlean has written many great books about ordinary (and not so ordinary) people, places, and things. She's conversational in her tone and very entertaining. She's well-known for her book The Orchid Thief, which the movie Adaptation was based on. Also, if you've ever watched those The Knot Real Weddings shows on a lazy Sunday afternoon, there's one with her, which I think is the best episode of them. Not only does she come off as a fabulous real-life person, she has this fantastic gospel choir sing at her down-to-earth, small, homey wedding. Not that I watch these shows regularly. Really, just occassionally.

Next book up: The Penultimate Peril by Lemony Snicket


Anonymous said...

In 1949 I was just a kid, living about 60 miles from Rockford. Seems to me that was the year that Thodora Smafield from Rockford won the Pillsbury Bakeoff with her No-Knead, water rising-twists.

You know where to send the book.

Maria Duncan said...

Nice work, Dad! That is indeed the winning prize. I'm glad to see how sharp your childhood memory is (with the aid of Google)!

Consider the book in the mail.