1956 Bake-Off Winner Takes the Cake

Unless you've had your head in the oven for the past week, you're probably aware that the 34th Annual Pillsbury Bake-Off was recently held at the Pointe at South Mountain. Inspired by its presence in our town, I rummaged through a stack of old Better Homes and Gardens magazines in search of a Bake-Off supplement I'd remembered seeing.

Eureka!
In the April 1957 issue, sandwiched between articles on rhubarb gardening and meatloaf magic, was a seven-page spread filled with recipes from the previous year's Bake-Off. Intrigued by one particularly bizarre headline ("America's brides love to cook with Kraft Cheese") over a recipe for something called Chicken a la Cheese Pie, I decided to call Mrs. Herman D. "Bud" Baldner Jr., the beaming young farmer's wife pictured in the ad. When I finally reached her at her home in Dallas Center, Iowa, Lorna Baldner sounded exactly as she looked, just the sort of person who, if she'd known I was calling, would have baked a cake.

She laughed when I asked her to talk turkey about Chicken a la Cheese Pie and the 1956 contest. "Oh, heavens, that was a long time ago," said Mrs. Baldner, who still lives in the Iowa farmhouse where her husband was born. "`Way back in aught-six,' as we call it. Anything that happened in the past is `aught-six'--that's the big joke in this family." Lorna Baldner chuckled again when I asked about the secret origins of her prize-winning poultry pie. "After I won, I received a lot of calls and letters from people wanting to know how I'd perfected the recipe, how many times I'd entered and so forth. Well, basically, I was just trying to use up some leftover chicken and vegetables I happened to have on hand," she confesses. "I just threw it all together, slammed it in a pie crust, put some cheese on top and baked it. It didn't seem like a big deal at the time."

"Lorna Pie" (Pillsbury renamed the dish later) panned out far better than she ever imagined. While something of a nutritional nightmare by contemporary culinary standards (in addition to the dread MSG, the cholesterol-choked concoction contains Crisco, chicken fat and eight slices of processed cheese), Baldner's brainstorm really hit the spot with hearty, less health-conscious appetites of the Fifties. Encouraged by friends on the covered-dish dinner circuit, she sent the recipe to the Pillsbury contest. A few months later, the 24-year-old newlywed and her husband were winging their way to New York's posh Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, site of the eighth annual Pillsbury Grand National.

Although Baldner now regularly visits her married daughter in Mesa every other year, the Pillsbury pilgrimage represented her first foray out of the farmlands surrounding Des Moines. "I'd never even flown before," says Baldner, who soon found herself on a collision course with culture shock. "The new bride in the big city--it was quite an experience."

Raised in a farming family where she was taught to carry her own weight, Baldner remembers feeling ill-at-ease with luxury life at the Waldorf. Accommodating staffers magically materialized to open doors and light her husband's cigarettes or serve the couple breakfast in bed. Even the custom of tipping seemed alien to the Iowa ingenue--Baldner claims the practice was forbidden in the cafes she'd frequented as a teen-ager. "I think the biggest uneasiness was having people wait on you when you are so used to the independent lifestyle of Iowa," she says. "We did everything ourselves--cook, bake, clean, sew, as well as attend to all the needed farm chores."

Baldner was considerably more comfortable in the Waldorf ballroom, where she and 99 other finalists staged a high-stakes range war during the actual Bake-Off.

Later, at the awards banquet, she claims that she almost fell out of her chair when Art Linkletter strolled up and announced she'd placed second in the bride category. (Easy Cheesy Bread took top honors.) Baldner's boodle included $1,000, a G.E. Stratoliner stove and an electric mixer. Although most of the money went back into the farm, Baldner did splurge on a $100 suit while in New York. "I wore it for a few years but I grew and the suit didn't, so it went into storage."

Now busy with church, 4-H and Farm Bureau affairs, Lorna Baldner says she looks forward to the day when she can tell her grandchildren about her Bake-Off victory. And when the mood strikes her, she still whips up the occasional Chicken a la Cheese Pie. "We haven't had it in a while, though. But when we do, I check prices. I try to be supportive of Pillsbury but if there's a good sale on Gold Medal, I'll take advantage of it."

Lorna Baldner wraps up our conversation with advice to other Bake-Off hopefuls. "Life is made up of hard work, honesty, neighborliness and love," she tells me. "And when something comes along like winning the Pillsbury Bake-Off, that is the icing on the cake. Go for it, always remembering that winning is just the icing. It is the cake that makes up the greatest part of your life, so be sure that is the part you enjoy and make it worth your time and energy."

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