START YOUR OVENS
I had hardly turned my calendar to January 2000 when a hefty envelope from Pillsbury thumped on my desk at a newspaper in Portland, Maine. Inside was a voluminous press packet on the upcoming 2000 Pillsbury Bake-Off® contest in San Francisco. Since going through my mail methodically was my preferred means to procrastinate writing, I had at it.
Pillsbury had sent me this weighty missive because for the first time since 1984 Maine would send a contestant, a career postal worker who in her spare time had invented Cheesy Potato Corn Cakes using a box of Hungry Jack mashed potato flakes, a can of corn, and a pile of cheese, among other things. That brainstorm meant that Mary Jones, the single, fortyish mail handler with straight black hair down her back, now had a shot at winning a life-changing grand prize of $1 million. Jones’s brainstorm gave me, a fine arts reporter who wrote about food in between penning thumbsuckers on Van Gogh or the Byzantine workings of museums, an official invite to the Pillsbury Bake-Off® contest.
It took a while, about one extra grande latte with two shots, to get through the Pillsbury press materials. As I paged through the recipes, making gagging noises at the horrifying ones, such as the meat loaf with a jar of El Paso salsa mixed in, and read over the descriptions of the one hundred contestants—there was a junior high school student, a harpist from Hawaii, a cookbook collector, a funeral director—I was struck that this publicity event cum Americana refused to die. Rather, here we were in a new millennium when women are CEOs and American cooking had finally begun to get some respect, and cookoffs not only had endured but were actually thriving. National amateur cooking contests were born in an era long before Title IX and jogging bras, before a Mrs. could be a Ms., and before Sandra Day O’Connor had become the first female Supreme Court justice, albeit with a ’50s housewife hairdo. Cooking contests came long before cilantro became a pantry staple, before food processors, espresso makers, and bread machines crowded kitchen counters, before fusion this and that, before Julia, for God’s sake. Why hadn’t cookoffs gone the way of Tupperware parties, kid gloves, and pigs-in-a-blanket? How could any self-respecting woman or cook deign to enter such an anachronism?
Off I went to find the answer.
I joined a small army of reporters and editors from around the country that converged on San Francisco to follow the 2000 cookoff contestants for three days as they ate, yakked, toured, and battled it out at the stoves for the million dollars. I, a thoroughly twenty-first-century career woman who also knew what to do with a chinois, arrived with an eyebrow arched, ready to make fun of the entire event like many of my colleagues. Instead, I quickly got caught up in the breathless excitement of the contest, the closest thing to sports that I had ever covered. I began handicapping with the contestants. I listened intently to the creation stories of their recipes. I, who had not sunk my teeth into a Pillsbury crescent roll in twenty-five years, began to think up a few recipe ideas for the baton of dough myself.
Not that there wasn’t a comic side to the Pillsbury Bake-Off® contest. That first afternoon I hovered as contestants giddily lined up to have their official photos taken and introduced themselves as their dishes (“Hi, I’m Chocolate Pudding Cake” or “I’m Hawaiian Corn Salad”). They passed around their contest cookbooks, scribbling “Best of Luck” and their names in the margins by their recipes like graduating high school seniors. They buzzed about the legendary Tunnel-of-Fudge Woman, the 1966 second-place winner whose cake had sparked Bundt-pan mania in this country. Rumor was that she was here in San Francisco. “Really!” someone in line squealed. No one could say for sure, though. No one knew what the Tunnel-of- Fudge woman looked like despite her celebrity.
I quickly realized what the contest meant for these contestants. These were everyday people who, thanks to an often thankless task, cooking, had had something big happen to them. From the confines of their kitchens they had catapulted to a national stage. Reporters pumped them for their opinions on fresh garlic versus powdered. TV crews crowded around their stoves. Company bigwigs toasted them. Most of the contestants had reached that age when you begin to wonder, glumly, if you will ever make your mark, if anything thrilling will ever happen to you again. Well, it had. Their dreamy smiles said so.
By the time I went to the press orientation that first Sunday afternoon, I was completely taken with the cookoff. Consequently, I was surprised by how blasé so many of my colleagues were. It turned out that many of the reporters, if not most, had been there before. They were here primarily to soak up Pillsbury’s considerable attentions, including breakfast in bed. I struck up a quick conversation with a brisk food editor in cowboy boots, a contest veteran who made it clear that she planned to spend as little time with the contestants as possible. “You’re going to meet a lot of trailer trash,” she warned me.
I really hadn’t expected trailer trash; I had expected stereotypical midwestern homemakers galore. The first surprise was that California supplied most of the contestants, followed by New York. I found an amazing cross section of Americans, given that most of the contestants were white, middle-class, middle- aged women. I talked with an airline flight scheduler from rural Pennsylvania who told me on the contest floor, as she calmly swabbed mustard sauce on a triangle of crescent refrigerator dough, “This is nothing compared to the blizzard of ’93.” I met a type-A video producer from Washington, D.C., who was decked out in black and bent on winning the big bucks by sending his mayonnaise-lathered chicken Waldorf pizza in dead last to the judges. I interviewed a paramedic and mother of three teenagers from North Carolina who doused some leftover squash with Italian dressing and threw it in a sauté pan, thus planting the seed for what became Fiesta Veggies, her winning entry. What if she won, I asked her. How would she spend the money? She wasn’t sure, thought a moment, and said, “My husband’s car just came out of the shop and mine just went in.”
So many different roads led here. I met Tracie Ojakangas, a nurse from Missouri with an Elizabethan forehead, fair skin, red hair, and a lilting northern midwestern accent. During the two years prior to the contest, Ojakangas had endured Lyme disease and then breast cancer. Her mother-in-law, who won second place in the 1958 Pillsbury Bake-Off® contest with Chunk o’ Cheese Bread, encouraged her to enter to distract her from the rigors of chemotherapy, which had roused the Lyme disease. Despite nausea and exhaustion, Ojakangas came up with three recipes, including Mozzarella and Pesto Crescent Tarts, a big hit with her two young sons and her winning entry. Fate, however, was not finished with her. During the few months leading up to the contest, doctors spotted the shadow of a brain tumor on an X ray, benign but in a bad spot. Two and a half weeks shy of the competition, Ojakangas’s tumor was zapped with gamma rays for thirteen hours.
She arrived in San Francisco with her husband, fatigued yet exhilarated. Ojakangas couldn’t help reading her cooking conquest as a sign, a sign that a rip tide of bad luck may have turned because of a can of Pillsbury Refrigerated Crescent Dinner Rolls, two tablespoons of bottled pesto, two medium tomatoes, one small red onion, one to two teaspoons of fresh rosemary, a half cup of shredded mozzarella, and a quarter cup of shredded Parmesan. If you could get Lyme disease, breast cancer, and a brain tumor all in a row, why couldn’t you win $1 million for a recipe?
I met Millie D’Elia, a stylish if shrunken seventy-three-year-old retired secretary who arrived at the contest with a prepared sound bite. “I feel like Susan Lucci,” she repeated to reporters, Pillsbury execs, and, at times, no one in particular, referring to the soap opera star who was annually nominated for a daytime Emmy, only to lose again and again. Compared to D’Elia, though, Lucci got off easy. “She only did it eighteen times,” D’Elia cracked.
D’Elia had entered some thirty-five times, only missing a few when her two children were young. She still had an entry form from the original 1949 contest, now a collectible, she told me. That year D’Elia was a twenty-two-year-old bookkeeper for Singer and was still living in Westchester County with her seven brothers and sisters and widower father. By the time the hand of Pillsbury chose her as a contestant, D’Elia was living on Long Island in a mother-in-law’s apartment in her daughter’s home.
The only problem was that this Italian-American cook had been picked for her least favorite entry, Creamy Parmesan Broccoli, for which she smothered frozen broccoli with a white sludge of Parmesan cheese, sour cream, and mayonnaise. She added toasted pine nuts to the quasi-broccoli-cheese casserole for a “gourmet touch.” Broccoli would never win the grand prize, and D’Elia knew it. After her long wait, all she could hope for was a $2,000 prize. What’s more, she couldn’t demonstrate her substantial Italian- American cooking chops with her broccoli dish. The longed-for experience of a lifetime had proven a bit anticlimactic. She even had trouble getting a relative or friend to accompany her.
Then I stumbled upon a subculture: the contesters. This group of about two thousand cooks, mostly women, makes a serious hobby if not a near career out of cooking contests. They put in long hours researching trends and winning recipes, and, like mad inventors, they endlessly tinker with their creations. Their time and effort pays off. Their names figure prominently on winners’ lists of all kinds of national cooking contests.
At the 2000 competition there were ten contesters of various levels of seriousness and experience, including Diane Sparrow, a tall, kinky-haired Iowan who in four quick years had emerged as a formidable presence in the cooking contest world. She had won a prize in the hard-to-crack Gold Kist chicken recipe contest four years running, capped by the grand prize in 2000, a trip to La Varenne in France. She had gone to the National Chicken Cooking Contest in 1999 and to Bay’s English Muffin contest in 1998. In a variety of contests she has picked up five KitchenAid mixers, $1,000 worth of cookware, $1,000 worth of knives, an electric smoker, a ceramic cooker, and a complete set of new kitchen appliances. She had recently won a year’s worth of sauerkraut.
The Pillsbury Bake-Off® contest had become a point of pride for Sparrow. Even though she’d cleaned up at many contests, she had yet to crack the “big boy.” So while other contestants stumbled upon their entries or entered as a hoot, Sparrow methodically went to work like a high-stakes gambler sizing up the racing form. First, she hit the cookbooks. She researched hundreds of recipes, perusing all the past winners. Quick and easy was a must, a touch of ethnic food was good, but, moreover, Sparrow concluded, the contest favors the most average American cooking. She’d have to dumb down her foodie instincts but somehow work in some ethnic flavors.
Her strategy in place, she decided to use El Paso salsa as a stand-in for a slow-cooked sauce. She came up with a sweet-savory combo, her signature kind of dish. She browned ground beef, added chopped apples and salsa to the pan, then dried cranberries, green olives, and cilantro. She spooned this culture clash of a sauce onto rounds of Pillsbury refrigerator biscuits, baked them—and Picadillo Pies were born. And here she was in San Francisco, a contestant at last. “I told my friends who are contesters that I’ve figured something out but I don’t know what,” she said.
What all these people had in common was cooking, a great leveler of class, age, and education. You don’t have to be a genius to be a good cook, nor do you have to be a toned athlete or naturally talented. Neither must you be rich or young. That is what makes cooking contests so quintessentially American. All comers have a shot in this very democratic competitive arena where the common cook can make American food history and win as much as $1 million for a simple eureka moment in the kitchen.
Almost everyone knows about the Pillsbury Bake-Off® contest, but, as I quickly learned, it is just the sizable tip of the American cooking contest iceberg. There are a dozen or so national cookoffs a year, most offering substantial prizes, $5,000 to $20,000. There are even more recipe contests, competitions where winners are selected by recipe alone with no cookoff component. The prizes for these can likewise be very impressive, often $10,000 or more, sometimes all-expenses-paid trips to exotic locales. These contests are growing in numbers, as are the entries. That is largely due to the Web, which has popularized these contests by making them easy to find and enter.
Then there are chili cookoffs, barbecue cookoffs, Dutch oven cookoffs, jambalaya cookoffs, and chuck wagon cookoffs. These cookoff worlds are mostly unique to themselves and focus more on technique than recipe originality. They are also the cookoff arenas where men dominate. Note that they are all outside, and most involve a wood fire, not to mention piles of gear and a long list of rules. Boys will be boys. Oddly enough, there is typically far less prize money at stake in these contests, and winners vie mostly for bragging rights. Still, the same urge is at work—the urge to outcook your opponents, to show the world that you reign supreme in the kitchen.
Back in the pressroom, most of the reporters treated the contest as a quirky, funny story. To some degree they had to. The journalists were on deadline and so had to surface-feed. Obviously I had found that you didn’t have to reach too deep to find material that could keep cultural anthropologists and food historians busy for years, from what cookoffs say about Americans’ wacky relationship with food to how women compete. While the reporters tapped out their stories, I had my own eureka moment.
Thanks to the food revolution of the past twenty-five years, food has finally started to matter to Americans, or at least much more so than a generation ago. Cookoffs reflect Americans’ newfound interest in food, and winners regularly include ingredients that just ten years ago were considered gourmet. On the other hand, these contests, with their emphasis on speedy recipes and processed foods, reinforce the most slovenly American food habits, the ones that foodies abhor.
Cookoffs lie at the intersection of two counter forces: the push for a respectable American cuisine and the devotion to the casserole aesthetic. At a pivotal point in the food revolution, cookoffs and their longevity are a gauge of just how far American home cooking has come and how far it has to go. Early indications are that the battle against Crock-Pots and cream of mushroom soup is far from won.
In addition these contests say much about Americans in general—our intense love of speed, ingenuity, competition, and fun. That’s why, by slicing this phenomenon this way or that, you can get at so many different aspects of the current culture, edible and otherwise. As the food celeb Burt Wolf once told me, “Show me a culture’s food, and I’ll tell you about that culture.” Clearly, I was hooked.
As for my original question—Why are cooking contests still with us?—this book is the answer.
Thousands of entries have been screened, a hundred or so have been prepared, and fifty-one dishes have been given the thumbs-up. The cooks have been telephoned with the news: “You’re a contestant in the National Chicken Cooking Contest!” The chosen have crammed their dry ingredients, pots, knives, and timers into their carry-on bags and flown from points in every state and the District of Columbia to Sacramento, California, on this April weekend for the 2001 contest. They’ve checked into what the tour books say is the best hotel in town, the white Hyatt Regency, which looks vaguely like a Florida import. They have zipped across the street to the convention center to inspect the cookoff floor and their 10-foot by 10-foot cooking station, complete with their state flag. They’ve had their official photo snapped as they all yelled “chicken”; pawed through their goody bags of almonds, apricots, avocados, and turkey-jerky; devoured a dinner of California-everything in the state museum, where they glanced over the state constitution and met John Muir’s ghost in between making cocktail conversation. And now, bright and early on the morning of the cookoff, they—five men and forty-six women—stand in single file like beauty pageant contestants, their red sashes emblazoned with their home states draped across their chests, waiting to walk the red carpet into the opening ceremony.
As celebrity hosts Cindy Williams, she of the poodle skirt on Laverne and Shirley, and Andre Carthen, a wound-up TV and Broadway actor who nobody has ever heard of, call out their names, flub hometowns, rattle off jobs and hobbies (“She has over twenty cats”), the contestants walk in one by one as a spotlight gilds them. Some look embarrassed, almost sheepish. They clasp their hands before them or grip purses like security blankets. The contestant from Alaska seems to sleepwalk. Others soak up the attention, flash big cheerleader smiles, and take long, easy steps. One chirpy contestant even waves and yelps “Woo-hoo.” Halfway through the alphabet, at Montana, it becomes all too clear: The heavy hitters are here.
There are at least fifteen contestants, nearly a third of the entire group, who are cookoff veterans. Ten are alums of the Pillsbury Bake-Off® contest. Two have each been competing on the cooking contest circuit since the 1970s. One just won two grand prizes in national contests, including $5,000 for a rice recipe that used...chicken.
“Oh-sawge,” Cindy Williams sings out, garbling Diane Sparrow’s hometown in Iowa. Sparrow, unfazed, smiling, shoulders back, marches in the room like she owns it. She is back for her second National Chicken in a row. She was celebrity struck at the ’99 Chicken, what with all the big-name contesters, such as Edwina Gadsby and Roxanne Chan. Now she returns, a name to be reckoned with thanks to a winning streak that hasn’t given yet. Also, it didn’t hurt Sparrow’s confidence that the contest director pulled her aside at this morning’s breakfast buffet to tell her she dreamed that Sparrow had won.
She has lugged a cupboard of equipment with her, including a ceramic pitcher that she had custom-made in Minnesota for serving her Sticky Sauce of Dijon Mustard and Maple Syrup. Her husband still fumes over all the driving to get the pitcher. It took two three-hour round trips to Red Wing, Minnesota. Sparrow didn’t care about the gas or time, just that the pitcher perfectly complements the blue-speckled plate that the Maple Mustard Chicken drumsticks go on. She has also packed an outfit—navy pants and a yellow blazer, both linen—that matches her dish. She is not known as the queen of presentation for nothing. Add to that, chicken is her forte, and she has practiced making her dish as she never has before.
In saunters Bob Gadsby, one-half of the powerhouse contesting husband-wife team (“He enjoys restoring old fire engines”). His Montana ribbon drapes over his offensive lineman-like girth, cinching at his waist. He dwarfs just about everybody, except for a giant white chicken in a polka-dot dress who watches the proceedings, beak agape, from a dark corner of the room. As a customs officer who once worked the California-Mexico border, Gadsby doesn’t break a sweat easily over cooking competitions. As he puts it, he’s so calm, “acid could run off my back.”
This is his first Chicken, as the contesters call it. Gadsby has switched roles with his wife, Edwina, whom he tagged along with to the ’99 cookoff in Dallas. Edwina walked away empty-handed, but her husband roamed the cookoff floor, carefully studying what worked (organization) and what didn’t (disorganization). In other words, he knows exactly what to expect, and that includes “being in the money” with his Tuscan Chicken Cakes with Tomato-Basil Relish. If he was to win, he would be the first man to do so since 1976.
Pat Harmon steps into the room, her penciled arched eyebrows giving her a slightly manic look. She strides down the red carpet nonchalantly. Harmon, a retiree and devout Jimmy Buffet fan, is one of the few female contesters who doesn’t consider competition a dirty word. She embraces it, which is near heresy in the contester world.
This is also Harmon’s first National Chicken. She’s been entering at least one contest per week for the past several years and has the winning gift baskets and cookbooks to show for it. She has two Bake-Off® contests under her belt, but until now she has not been able to break into other major national cookoffs. Chicken thighs braised in tea and apricot nectar got her here. National Chicken marks a turning point for her as she finally competes with her peers because, as she puts it, the “who’s who in cooking” is here. She is not intimidated, as usual.
Then there is classy Janice Elder, an executive assistant in Charlotte (“She’ll use any money she wins for a dream trip to Africa”). National Chicken was her first ever contest back when she was a kitchen- challenged newlywed. Her dish, chicken doused with canned cherries, looked like a leftover from a traffic accident. Since then she has honed her chops at about every cookoff you can think of and regularly scores in recipe contests, as does her husband, Larry.
Ruth Kendrick is relatively new to the cooking contest world but, as Carthen announces, “She was fourth runner-up at the last Chicken cookoff.” What Carthen doesn’t mention is that she is a crossover competitive cook from the ultra-tough Dutch oven world, which makes the likes of National Chicken look like a coffee klatch. Moreover, she won the 1998 International Dutch Oven Championship Cook-off with Salmon in Black and White Sesame Seeds and Raspberry Ganache Fudge Cake. And she did it over a fire in the desert using a cast iron pot. Obviously, she’s no slouch.
They just keep coming. Barbara Morgan of California is the queen mother of contesters, having scored in more than six hundred contests since winning a much needed $100 for a meat loaf recipe with fresh spinach in 1980. In two short years of contesting, Claudia Shepardson of New York, who includes her grandson on her list of hobbies, has come on strong on the circuit, picking up grand prizes right and left. Liz Barclay, an assistant principal in Annapolis, Maryland, zips into the room like a filly eager for the starting gate. She regularly makes it to cookoffs and places in recipe contests, but the big cash prizes have eluded her. She hopes this cookoff will be different.
The rookies have no idea what they’re up against. Some of them think the cookoff is a big hoot, “me, at a cooking contest.” They’ve been carrying on as if they just won the lottery. They’ve been too busy quaffing free wine in the hospitality room, sucking down gratis meals, and napping on king-sized beds in their paid-for room to strategize or even think about the actual cookoff. To them their presence here is just a lucky break, a divine blessing that landed them an all-expenses-paid trip for two to California on this early spring weekend.
The contesters know differently. Sure, they figure fortune had something to do with it, but they know it’s no fluke. Like gamblers, they are well acquainted with the fickleness of Lady Luck. But also like gamblers, they know the game and have played it for all they are worth. In short, they have earned the right to be here. They thoroughly researched past winners, boned up on current chicken trends, foisted innumerable poultry creations on their family and friends, and kept notebooks on their nightstands to scribble drumstick brainstorms in the middle of the night.
Having made the cut for the cookoff, they practiced making their recipes, carefully thought out their presentation, scoped out the competition, and planned what time they would send their dishes to the judges. There is $25,000 at stake. This is National Chicken, after all.
There is no clear-cut annual season to national cooking contests, but there is a recognizable cycle, a kind of Triple Crown, dictated by the three biggest cookoffs, all biennials. It begins in the spring every other year with National Chicken. The National Beef Cook-Off with its $50,000 grand prize and twenty contestants follows in September. Then the Pillsbury competition, by far the biggest with its one hundred contestants and $1 million grand prize, rolls around in February. Once the hysteria of that contest recedes, contesters turn their attention again to poultry and National Chicken. The cycle begins anew.
In between are sundry annual cookoffs, not to mention a slew of national recipe contests such as Colavita’s Better Than Butter Recipe with a grand prize of a round-trip for two to Italy. Most contesters fool with the stinking rose for California’s Gilroy Garlic Cook-Off in July and then experiment on their backyard grills for Sutter Home’s Build a Better Burger Contest in September in Napa Valley. There are plenty of smaller, regional cookoffs as well, such as the National Oyster Cook-off in Maryland, the National Cornbread Cook-off in Tennessee, and the National Dandelion Cook-off in Ohio’s Amish country. And new cookoffs pop up here and there. During this cycle that I’m following, several have already appeared on the horizon: the Post Selects Cereal Brunch Contest ($10,000 prize), the Reynolds Hot Bags Foil Bags “In the Bag” Recipe Contest (a round-trip for two to the Caribbean), and The Great Australian Barbeque Cookoff, for which the finalists will be flown to Sydney, Australia, to compete.
National Chicken, as far as anyone knows, is the longest, continually running cookoff, just beating the Pillsbury Bake-Off® contest by months. However, National Chicken got its start as a regional event, and Pillsbury has always been a national one. The first chicken cookoff was held at the annual Delmarva Chicken Festival in Salisbury, Maryland. Delmarva is the squished-up name for the squat peninsula that Virginia, Delaware, and Maryland share between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. It is also the birthplace of America’s commercial chicken industry. The year was 1949, when chicken was sold as a whole bird that home cooks dismembered in their own kitchen. This was before mandatory federal inspection of chicken, before chicken tenders or boned breasts, before Kentucky Fried Chicken went from coast to coast, before chicken’s sound thumping of beef.
That first year the contest was open to all comers. Some 160 local cooks showed up, toting their own frying pans and wrinkled, stained family recipes scribbled on the backs of envelopes. The judging went late into the night. Out of a field of mostly fried chicken the judges made a bold choice: a broiled bird. Broiled Chicken Deluxe, submitted by Mrs. A. L. Keith of Salisbury, a dark-haired woman in a floral apron, called for squeezing lemon juice over a two-and-a-half-pound broiler, dusting it with a mix of salt, paprika, and pepper, smearing it with melted butter, and then finishing it with a sprinkle of sugar. Mrs. Keith won a custom-designed Westinghouse kitchen and $400 in cash toward its installation.
By the 1960s the Delmarva Chicken Cook-off had evolved into a national contest, with a contestant picked from each state and the District of Columbia. Entries were more and more expected to be original. Those early years produced recipes that are still requested, such as Sweet ’n’ Smokey Oven Barbecued Chicken, a baked bird cut in parts with a sauce of equal parts catsup, cooking oil, and maple syrup lightened with some vinegar and mustard, and Sweet and Sour Chicken, baked chicken parts slimed with Russian salad dressing, dry onion soup mix, and a jar of apricot preserves. You can still find both recipes on the National Chicken Council’s website.
By the early ’70s the contest had become more work and money—what with a $10,000 grand prize and fifty-one all-expenses-paid trips—than a regional festival could handle. The cookoff was transferred in 1971 to what was then the National Broiler Council and renamed the National Chicken Cooking Contest. The competition left the Delmarva strip and became a roving event, moving from one poultry-producing state to the next with each contest. It remains the biggest promotion put on by what is now called the National Chicken Council, a national trade and marketing association in Washington, D.C. It also remains the only national cookoff where contestants represent their home states.
Although the National Beef Cook-Off offers a bigger grand prize, National Chicken has long been the big favorite of the contesters for two reasons. First, they love it for the deluxe treatment, which they consider only second to the attentions Pillsbury lavishes on its chosen. Each contestant wins a three-night, all-expenses-paid trip for two wherever the cookoff is held.
Second, National Chicken gives contesters the freedom to flex their gourmet muscles. While most cookoffs require the use of processed foods, all this cookoff calls for is chicken, plain and simple. In fact, recipes that rely heavily on processed foods rarely make it to the finals anymore. The Beef Cook-Off calls only for beef as well but limits the number of ingredients to six, including the meat, and literally holds cooking time to thirty minutes. These restrictions necessitate processed food. At Chicken there is no limit on ingredients. As for time, contestants must cook their dish twice in three hours, which may rule out wrapping up a galantine, but otherwise it is a leisurely, liberating pace. Simplicity does count in the judging, but in equal shares to appeal, appearance, and taste.
Consequently, at National Chicken most contestants actually cook rather than just heat. You find exotica such as peanut oil, coconut milk, fresh basil, shiitake mushrooms, Chinese five-spice powder, and even the hallmark of fine cooking, shallots. Sometimes the freedom goes to the contestants’ heads, as with the cultural mishmash of Nuevo Cubano Chicken Kiev with Mango Mustard Sauce or the pantry of ingredients for Barclay’s Moroccan Chicken Pie with Sweet Potato Polenta. Mostly the contest produces some genuinely interesting dishes and ideas, such as Roxanne Chan’s second place winner in ’99 that called for smoking chicken breasts in a wok and then serving them sliced over a sesame vegetable relish. That said, there is one recipe in the 2001 contest from North Dakota that calls for two cups of finely crushed pretzels and uses lemon Jell-O in the glaze.
When the rules for the 2001 contest were issued, the contesters were understandably alarmed at what might seem like an incidental change to an outsider. For the first time cooked chicken, as in rotisserie chicken, could be used. To the contesters this signaled a seismic shift. They feared National Chicken would now go the way of National Beef, that ease of preparation would edge out taste. Rotisserie chickens today, frozen chicken fingers tomorrow.
Bob Gadsby was not bothered by the introduction of cooked chicken. Rather, it inspired him. Gadsby grew up in the San Diego area where he honed his acute appreciation for crab cakes crafted from the Pacific’s sweet Dungeness crab. Since the U.S. Customs officer’s transfer to Great Falls, Montana, he had led a relatively crab-cake-deprived existence. Good fresh seafood of any kind was almost impossible to find, and crab cakes rarely showed up on Montana restaurant menus. However, Gadsby tinkered with them in his own kitchen, sometimes using canned crab. He came up with Crab Cakes Italiano, which won him a trip to the ’98 Bake-Off® contest, and Spicy Crab Cakes with Chipotle Aioli, which scored the $5,000 grand prize in the Sonoma Sun-dried Tomato recipe contest, his biggest win to date.
For chicken, Gadsby began turning crab cakes over in his mind during his primo creation time, his long drives to the small far-flung airports of Montana that he oversees. What if he used chicken and created a kind of far-inland non-crab crab cake? He figured a rotisserie chicken would pull apart easily and supply the meat. He pretty much applied a basic crab cake recipe to the chicken, adding jarred pesto sauce and roasted red peppers to give it a Mediterranean twist. He had to fool with the aioli because the chicken cake couldn’t stand up to all the lemon. Thus, Tuscan Chicken Cakes with Tomato-Basil Relish were born. As his wife, Edwina, said, “Leave it to a man to take chicken apart and put it back together.”
Gadsby wasn’t the only contester to embrace the new rule. Janice Elder tore apart a precooked bird and riffed on an American classic, pulled pork. She piled her Pulled Chicken Barbecue on corn cakes that she fried in a pan, then topped the whole apparatus with a red-vinegar coleslaw concoction. Karen Shankles, a relative unknown from Tennessee but a Bake-Off® contest veteran nonetheless, used pregrilled strips to make a chicken salad with wild rice, dried cherries, and pistachios.
The precooked chicken wasn’t the only change that caught the contesters’ interest. For the first time National Chicken offered an extra grand to any winning recipe that used dark meat. In the case of the fifth place prize of $1,000, that would double the cash. The hope was that the bonus money would inspire some creative recipes using dark meat, the pariah of the American market. There was a time not too long ago when Americans favored dark meat, specifically drumsticks, for frying. That all changed when we began counting grams of fat. Now white meat, mostly in the form of pearly planks of boneless and often tasteless breast meat, sells by a two-to-one margin. Most of America’s leg meat is sold overseas where the rest of world still favors these less expensive, more flavorful cuts.
The contesters bit as the Chicken Council hoped. Sparrow used thighs, and so did Kendrick, Shepardson, and Harmon. Sparrow rolled them in panko, the Japanese oversized bread crumbs. Shepardson plopped them atop a bed of shiitake orzo. Kendrick paired the thighs with Argentina’s spicy chimichurri sauce.
The night before the cookoff, most of the contesters gathered in the hotel lobby. It was a subset of a subculture made possible by a website, Cooking Contest Central (recipecontests.com), which debuted in March 1998. Harmon, Sparrow, Kendrick, Barclay, Morgan, and others who regularly swap tips and report news of wins on the site’s chat room posed for a group photo. Gadsby did not join them. As with a few other top-winning contesters, neither he nor his wife, Edwina, participate in the chat room, which is called The Forum. Everyone suspects that these contesters who do not participate are “lurkers,” meaning they read the chat room but don’t post messages, like eavesdroppers on a party line. The Forum gals can be rather clannish, cheering on “Team Forum.” At times they get to resenting the lurkers. This creates a slight schism in the contesting world that cracks wide open now and again, but not here at National Chicken. The contesters are having a reunion of sorts. Sparrow and Kendrick haven’t seen each other since the ’99 National Chicken in Dallas where they met. They’re right back at ribbing each other. Harmon visits with Shepardson in person for the first time. The two have developed a kind of mentor-protégé relationship via email. Barclay, at the cookoff by herself as usual (her British husband thinks this hobby of hers is a goof), hits it off with Margee Berry, also on her own. The two are athletic and outgoing. Like Barclay, Berry has yet to win some big money or prize.
That’s another thing contesters like about National Chicken: They can count on being among their own. Finalists are picked state by state, which is why there are so many contesters. Competing within their state borders, the contesters vie in a much smaller pool than when finalists are chosen nationally. Contesters especially rule in the states with low population. That partially explains why one of the Gadsbys has represented Montana at the last three National Chickens.
There is a reverse effect as well. If you live in a state like California, a relative hotbed of contesters and good cooks, and only one contestant will be selected from the state, the competition is fierce. That is why every time National Chicken rolled around, Barbara Morgan joked that she would move to the small burg of Rhode Island. Morgan, one of the most veteran contesters, entered the contest over and over before finally getting the call for her Polenta Stuffed Chicken Breasts with Cranberry-Apricot Relish.
Not only can the contesters meet and greet, but they can test their mettle against their peers. That’s why placing or winning at National Chicken is considered the mark of a talented contester, and contesters regularly place or win at this cookoff. At the last one, first and second place, respectively, went to contesting celebs Marie Rizzio, who was a finalist for her third time, and Roxanne Chan, who has won more than four hundred contests.
After the botched opening ceremony, the cookoff gets under way at 9 A.M. sharp to the call “start your ovens.” The contestants begin rinsing, peeling, and chopping piles of veggies in earnest. Washing slippery bits of chicken is no easy task because there is no sink, only a pitcher of water and a tub, like a campsite. A mob of food press, family members, and public is unleashed on the contestants from the get-go, and they wander aimlessly around the catacomb of booths. They ask questions like “Do you like to cook?” and “Are there any samples?” The contestants chat cheerily as best they can while cooking. In the middle of answering questions from a Better Homes and Gardens editor, Sparrow realizes that she doesn’t know whether she put salt in her drumstick coating. She forgoes it, thinking no salt is better than too much salt.
Gadsby towers over his prep table, and his ingredients are well out of comfortable chopping range. He lowers himself into a chair and with rubber gloves begins to calmly rend a rotisserie chicken. As usual he is “disgustingly calm,” as his wife puts it, losing concentration only momentarily when a camera crew zeros in on him just as he plops his crab cakes in the sauté pan. Edwina wanders aimlessly around the floor, at loose ends not cooking and worried that she’ll make her husband nervous if she hangs around his booth. For lack of anything to do, she watches the demonstration of a new wonder refrigerator that will thaw meat and cool wine.
Barbara Morgan has become a darling of the media, who have been lapping up her funny quips and her compelling bio—a single mother who worked as a coal miner, ranch hand, and lobsterer. Morgan’s husband, an engineer, read too many Ayn Rand books, used his retirement money to buy five acres atop a mountain in Costa Rica, and abandoned the family for the libertarian life. Four of the couple’s five children, including her blind son, still lived at home. Morgan barely got by, each month weighing which bills could be put off. Contesting helped her pay the bills and afforded her much-needed vacations. More than that, contesting gave her hope.
She is also the oldest contestant at seventy-five, a reliable angle for reporters on a deadline, so there is always one or two hanging around her booth. As she entertains them, she starts hunting for the brown sugar that goes in her Cranberry-Apricot Relish. It is nowhere to be found. She panics. The rules are that no ingredients can be supplied during the cookoff. Morgan asks for sugar anyway. When she is told no, she leaves her station and arrives at Sparrow’s nearly in tears. She is about to be disqualified, she wails. The contest relents, the sugar is provided, a scene is averted, and Morgan returns to her stove.
While the public’s milling around and peppering them with questions rattles other contestants, Kendrick, a large woman with a naturally boisterous voice, is not flustered. In the harsh world of Dutch Oven cookoffs, contestants are judged on how much they talk with the public, not to mention the cleanliness of their cooking area. D.O. judges even check to see if the dishwater is hot. Compared to Dutch Oven standards, Chicken is like heating up a TV dinner for Kendrick. When the first dish is sent in to the sequestered judges around 10 A.M., Kendrick, who believes timing is key, is not far behind with her Chimichurri Chicken Thighs, keeping to her strategy of turning in near the front of the line but not right at the front.
Harmon, who lugged an electric frying pan all the way from Pennsylvania only to find there was no outlet for it, has happily adjusted to the Calphalon pan the contest provided. As she cooks, a buzz runs through the crowd as Sparrow breezes by with a rattan tray packed with pottery, her drumsticks cinched with corn husks, and the whole darn thing looking like a photo shoot for Gourmet magazine. Harmon looks up from her prep table and thinks “whoa,” and makes a mental note to herself, “Work on your presentation.”
As at every cookoff, the clock hands seem to spin faster and faster as the contest winds down. No one is more aware of time streaming by than Barclay. Last night she wondered if this might not be her turn to finally win big. Now all she’s hoping for is to get her dish in on time. The first one already went in to the judges, but if she doesn’t get the second version done for display, she’ll be disqualified. She came off the blocks at a sprint and hasn’t let up, chopping zucchinis, sweet potatoes, and red peppers at a clip, charging through the many steps of her Moroccan Chicken Pie with Sweet Potato Polenta. Now, as the second hand takes its last spins before noon, Barclay pulls her pie from the oven, garnishes it with parsley, and then hot- foots it to the display table as someone calls, “You go, girl.” She is the very last one to turn in her dish.
By the time the entries have been hauled back out for the evening’s cocktail reception, they have taken a decided turn for the worse. Six to eight hours after their creation, many of the dishes appear to be suffering from an advanced state of rigor mortis. Sauces solidify like aspics gone wrong. Parsley garnishes wilt and lay prone across chicken thighs. Vegetables pale and shrivel. These waning casseroles, stir-fries, soups, and salads are set one after another on a long linen-covered table. The effect is something like a forgotten buffet or church dinner, one where the diners mysteriously vanished and the only clues left are these tired chicken dishes. The presentation doesn’t always help. One contestant plopped her chicken salad in an Easter basket. Another served hers on a terra-cotta saucer, the kind you slip under a potted houseplant.
The contesters, showered and gussied-up, pace the table, sizing up the competition, working over in their minds what dishes rate cash. Kendrick clasps her contest cookbook in one hand, a pen in the other. She notes her picks next to the recipes. She marks Gadsby’s recipe and Sparrow’s. She marks Spicy Chicken Cutlets with Three Pepper Slaw, the Oklahoman’s dish, as well, but as a distant pick. Kendrick, losing her earlier confidence, rules herself out of the running. Her presentation, balancing thighs atop red and yellow pepper rings, just doesn’t cut it, she decides.
Walking the length of the display table, Sparrow is convinced that hers looks the best hands down, that those long drives to get the custom-made pottery paid off. Alas, her recipe is too simple to win, she thinks. Morgan has a shot, Sparrow thinks, because she has been the media darling. She doesn’t think Gadsby will win, if only because his chicken cakes don’t look that good. Harmon thinks the same. Gadsby disagrees. He comes away from the table feeling his is the most innovative, that he will win something. Edwina agrees. She thinks he’ll place. What she doesn’t say is this: She doesn’t think his is the grand prize winner. None strike her that way.
After a voluminous, five-course dinner that starts, surprisingly, with halibut, albeit Pacific halibut, and concludes with a mini white chocolate state capitol, its dome pushed askew by a rising mound of chocolate mousse—pretty but not easy to eat, especially if you are distracted by a $25,000 check dancing in your head—the wait is over. The head judge goes on excitedly about all the cross-cultural dishes, Greek-Asian, Asian-Hispanic, that the winners have “broad appeal” (big contesting buzzwords) and are perfect for spring and summer. The contesters quickly read these tea leaves, recalculating their odds. There is not much time to think, though. The prizes are announced by state, with a corny drum roll, in reverse. Fifth place ($1,000) goes to a bespectacled blonde from Idaho for her Chicken and Black Bean Soup. Fourth place ($2,000), the second chicken cookoff in a row, to a surprised Kendrick. Third ($3,000) to Sparrow. Second ($5,000) to a stylish grandmother of six from Oklahoma for her Spicy Chicken Cutlets with Three Pepper Slaw. Each winner is handed her droopy dish to hold.
With all the places named, Edwina figures her husband is out of the running. She leans over to give his knee a wifely pat and whisper, “Better luck next time,” but before she can lay a hand on him, he rockets out of his seat. Suddenly he’s standing at the front of the room holding his plate of crab cakes. People rise and applaud. Edwina is flummoxed. She looks around. Then it sinks in. He has won first place. He has won $25,000. He has won National Chicken, the first rooster in twenty-five years.
The next day breaks cool but sunny. The contestants are bused past fields polka-dotted with mustard and poppy blossoms to Napa Valley, where they tour a champagne cave, blend their own chardonnay at the Kendall-Jackson Vineyard, and quaff California’s best. National Chicken is one of the few cookoffs that fete the contestants the day after the contest. Most cookoffs ship the contestants out as quickly as possible, like house guests who have stayed too long. At Chicken, contestants get a day to enjoy themselves without going over their recipes in their minds. The fight has already been fought. They can relax, except for Gadsby.
Gadsby feels very self-conscious, an unusual feeling for him. He is suddenly the guy with “a $25,000 check in his pocket.” He exorcises some of the guilt over his newfound wealth by raising a glass of champagne at the cave and toasting his fellow competitors. It is a nice gesture, but it doesn’t stop the clucking.
It isn’t that Gadsby himself won. It’s that rotisserie chicken won. That rotisserie chicken was allowed was bad enough, but giving it the grand prize, well, that only validates the convenience product. For some of the contesters this is a very ominous sign, a sign that Chicken may someday soon limit ingredients and limit time, that before too long the contestants will not be cooking but heating.
Bob Gadsby from Great Falls, Montana, won the 44th National Chicken Cooking Contest with his crab cakes cum chicken cakes.
TUSCAN CHICKEN CAKES WITH TOMATO-BASIL RELISH
3 cups cooked chicken, shredded and chopped
1 cup Italian seasoned bread crumbs, divided
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/4 cup prepared basil pesto
2 teaspoons honey mustard
1/3 cup finely chopped roasted red peppers, drained
1/3 cup finely chopped red onion
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 package (5 ounces) mixed salad greens
1/3 cup prepared balsamic vinegar and oil dressing
Golden Aioli (recipe follows)
Tomato-Basil Relish (recipe follows)
In a large bowl, mix together the chicken, 1/2 cup of the bread crumbs, mayonnaise, egg, pesto, honey mustard, roasted peppers, and red onion. Using a 1/3-cup measure, shape the chicken mixture into 8 cakes. Lightly coat each with the remaining 1/2 cup of bread crumbs. In a large nonstick frying pan, place the oil over medium-high heat. Add the chicken and cook until golden brown, about 3 minutes per side; drain on paper towels. Toss the salad greens with the dressing and divide among 4 serving plates. Top each with 2 chicken cakes. Drizzle with Golden Aioli. Top each cake with dollop of Tomato-Basil Relish.
MAKES 4 SERVINGS
In a small bowl, whisk together 1/2 cup mayonnaise and 2 tablespoons honey mustard.
In a small bowl, mix together 1 cup seeded and chopped plum tomatoes, 1/3 cup chopped red onion, 3 tablespoons (drained) chopped sun-dried tomatoes, 2 tablespoons slivered basil leaves, 2 tablespoons prepared balsamic and oil dressing, and 1 teaspoon prepared basil pesto.