How National Cooking Competitions Changed the Way We Talk About Recipes

September 30, 2016

Tucked away in an attic box, my mom recently found a clipping from my dad’s high school newspaper with a somewhat unexpected headline for a thirty-plus-year lawyer:

“David Baird Wins Betty Crocker Award,” it proclaims in 1975-appropriate, yellowed type, going on to explain how the 17-year-old guy in the photo had beaten out everyone in the home economics department to win the Betty Crocker “Family Leader of Tomorrow” award.

This has "blue ribbon cake" written all over it. Photo by James Ransom

“Yeah, there was a scholarship involved, I think?” My dad explained, laughing and eyeing the paper. “I don’t think there were many other guys in the competition—especially not with the ‘trophy’ they gave me.”

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His first place prize? A sterling silver, stove-shaped charm for his (non-existent) charm bracelet.

While, bracelet or no, David bloomed into an exemplary family leader (good job, Dad!), the competition’s existence in and of itself points to a larger trend in mid-century America that completely changed the way we talk about recipes: national culinary competitions.

Between the turn of the century and the end of World War II, cookbooks and recipe-swapping were primarily community-driven affairs: created for church picnics, charity fundraisers, and motivated by the neighborly and familial notion of passing along trusted dishes as a point of personal pride. Cooking wasn’t about exalting the best or the brightest, exactly (though, of course, competitiveness has always existed), but instead about practicality and—more or less—sustenance.

That all changed in 1949, when the Grand National Recipe and Baking Contest—what would become the Pillsbury Bake-Off—was held for the first time at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. It was there that competitors from across the country gathered to test their mettle against one another (using, naturally, Pillsbury flour) for the chance to win national glory and a cool $50,000.

This kind of high-stakes competition had yet to exist, and almost immediately found a captive audience. With the rise of modern electronics (ahem, television) and the post-war baby and economic boom, the event couldn’t have happened at a more ideal time. The inaugural competition sparked a national fire for culinary feats of strength that has seen little slowing down, with hundreds of thousands of home cooks since vying for the chance to bring their baked goods out of the kitchen and onto center stage.

67 years later, the biannual Bake-Off now awards a whopping $1 million to the first place winner.

If the menus of high-end restaurants are able to tell us, historically, what the culinary one-percent cares about, the dishes that win national cooking competitions reflect how the majority of Americans—those in cul de sacs, studio apartments, down rural routes—actually approach food. There are no strange emulsion techniques or palate-challenging flavor combinations within a hundred yards of any winning Bake-Off recipes. Instead, the dishes are the kind both created for and celebrated by home cooks, most of whom don’t give (as my grandmother would say) a “wang dang doodle” about what any toque-wearing chef believes to be delicious.

And while the Pillsbury Bake-Off loves to toss around words like “best” (and, of course, “winner!”), the competition still somehow feels both accessible and empowering. The barrier to entry for your potential million-dollar dish doesn’t involve culinary school or climbing the ladder in a professional kitchen. Instead, it’s as simple as being brave enough to send in a recipe, driven by the belief that a cookie or quiche has thrilled your loved ones so much, it might make others happy, too.

If the menus of high-end restaurants are able to tell us what the culinary one-percent cares about, the dishes that win national cooking competitions reflect how the majority of Americans actually approach food.

To this day, the Pillsbury Bake-Off serves as a litmus test for what certain eras deemed valuable in the world of home-based cooking. There’s the early ‘60s trend of savory, strata-like creations, from the Grand Prize winning Dilly Casserole Bread (made with a sizeable dollop of cottage cheese) in 1960, to the beef-heavy Hungry Boys’ Casserole, a 1963 Detroit-original festooned with pinwheels of dough. In the late ‘70s, the competition had an undeniable health food store vibe, with a Whole Wheat Raisin Loaf winning in 1976. (A “healthier” recipe hasn’t claimed top prize before or after.) And even the Bake-Off couldn’t escape the more recent fervor for all things pumpkin spice latte, as Christina Verrelli of Devon, Pennsylvania won for her pumpkin ravioli with salted caramel whipped cream in 2012.

If nothing else, the Pillsbury Bake-Off is the people’s competition.

Following in the footsteps of the Bake-Off, throughout the 1950s and 60s, the number of national recipe and cooking competitions skyrocketed. The Poultry and Egg National Board’s egg recipe contest launched in 1965, and the National Beef Cook-Off soon followed. The National Chicken Contest (sponsored by the National Broiler Council) became particularly popular, awarding tens of thousands of dollars for recipes like Crispy Chicken Salad with Sugared Pecans, until it disbanded in 2009.

“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,” writes Amy Sutherland in her book, Cookoff: Recipe Fever in America. “It begins in the spring every other year with National Chicken. The National Beef Cook-Off…follows in September. Then the Pillsbury competition, by far the biggest, 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.”

Just don't enter this in National Chicken. Photo by James Ransom

In addition to increased modes of communication, the swell of national cooking competitions throughout the mid-20th century was also fueled by the realization that women—not men—were the ones making almost all food-based decisions inside the home. Women were the champions of the kitchen and, if not the primary bread winners at the time, the ones who knew how to handle the bread. By marketing cooking competitions to women (and taking a page from the Peggy Olson playbook), advertisers knew that they were not only bringing the stovetop into the spotlight, but likely creating extraordinarily loyal customers.

Even if the motivations were primarily commercial in nature for the majority of these cooking challenges, the aftershocks were both novel and genre-shaking. Cooking became a means of celebrity for women, and to that end, a celebration of not only their creativity in the kitchen, but the pure, adrenaline-pumping pleasure of competition.

Cooking morphed into something that was—quite literally—valuable for women, putting cash in their hands and fire in their bellies. Without even knowing it, national recipe competitions became a quietly feminist act.

I’d like to think this notion passed through my teenage dad’s mind as he first held that Betty Crocker charm in his hand, preparing him for a life spent loving and supporting strong, progressive women.

Today, it’s almost impossible to flip on the television without seeing a hyper-sensational cooking competition, or to pick up a cookbook that doesn’t attest to hold the “best” recipe. There are dozens of Pillsbury Bake-Off books compiling their star recipes, and state fairs are once again garnering ample amounts of attention for the increasing competitiveness of their baking showdowns. Americans are going gaga for British cooking challenges, and even old-school, write-in recipe competitions are alive and well. Over the next three months alone, culinary pedestal-aspirers can enter everything from the BetterButter “Nuts about Coconut!” contest to the Bush’s Chili Cook-Off. If you believe your recipe is the best, there’s no shortage of ways to put it to the test in the public eye. (Even Food52 was founded on weekly recipe contests!)

Times might’ve changed, but the acutely American desire for achieving the highest of high (The most exalted chocolate cake! The blue ribbon chicken tortillas!) remains insatiable, fueled by a hunger that’s rumbled for centuries—and shows no signs of satiation anytime soon.

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Sarah Baird

Written by: Sarah Baird

1 Comment

Karla October 3, 2016
Is there still a Pillsbury Bakeoff?