Wake Up Call

Not Your Mama's Recipe

Say your mother made casseroles. In particular, she made one with a funny name -- "Mom's Mish-Mash," you called it -- with condensed cream of mushroom soup. She was famous for it; she took it to church potlucks, she took it to PTA dinners, and all of the other mothers just loved it and asked for the recipe. You asked for the recipe yourself, in college, when you began cooking on your own. You varied it somehow, maybe adding olives. Then one day, while making dinner for your family, you look at the can of soup in your hand and see your calling.

It's a recipe contest.

If Hollywood made thrilling, sentimental dramas about cooking contests -- and so far, unsurprisingly, it has not -- then this would be their cliché. Like small-town homecoming queens destined for stardom, certain recipes seem, well, just too good to be confined to Wednesday bridge luncheons. Recipe contests are their tickets to immortality: a clip-and-save, soup-label immortality, to be sure, but for ground beef and Velveeta, as good as it gets.

Because cooking contests are outwardly just that -- cooking contests, not high-stakes entertainment -- and because it seems plausible that time-tested family recipes should win them, it is remarkable that they seldom do. Cooking contests, it happens, are not just that. They are a profession for some, for others an obsession, and they define a vigorous American subculture. Indeed, they are decent Hollywood fodder after all, or they would be, if not for the fact that this subculture is "just a really nice group of people."

That's according to Susan Miller, a Litchfield Park woman who was among the 20 finalists in this year's National Beef Cook-Off. The contest, which was founded by the American National CowBelles in 1974, is today one of the more notable cooking contests, with more than $100,000 in prizes awarded in 2001 alone. Miller, whose Seared Chuck Steak on Pesto Potato Pancakes was entered in the Fresh Beef and Fresh Potatoes category, didn't win. She did, however, receive an all-expenses-paid trip to a resort in Tucson, where she dined heartily on steaks and spent time with a cooking-contest friend. With one exception, the 19 finalists who made it to the cook-off were old hands; they had been to similar cook-offs in the past.

Miller got involved with contests six years ago, when she entered a favorite salad recipe in a national competition. She was named a finalist and flown to San Francisco.

"When I was in San Francisco, everyone seemed to know everybody, except me," she recalls. "That's when I found out there are people who do this as a hobby."

So Miller took up "contesting" herself. In the intervening years, she has been honored in various small contests as well as the National Chicken Cook-Off and the Pillsbury Bake-Off. All told, she enters about 10 contests a year, mostly national competitions that offer big prizes.

No matter how good a cook your mother was -- and Miller credits her own mother with being her inspiration -- she probably didn't have more than a handful of signature recipes. When the contesting bug bites, you don't fall back on family favorites, you make up new ones.

"You experiment," explains Miller. To develop her beef recipe, she says, "I just started working with things." The contest's strict guidelines -- recipes could use no more than six ingredients, and had to cook in 30 minutes or less -- gave her a framework. As an idea formed, she tweaked it for expediency: using the microwave to cook her potatoes; not bothering to peel them. Her husband, as he often does, served as her guinea pig.

Recipe contests are usually sponsored by manufacturers (Pillsbury) or product councils (the California Dried Plum Board), and their primary purpose is promotional. Winning recipes, therefore, are selected for their appeal to specific demographic groups, people who buy pre-made pie crusts or prunes, and who might be tempted to buy more of them if they have a specific way to use them. These are not, typically, foodies: Consider the Colavita Romance Recipe Contest, which seeks recipes using Colavita extra-virgin olive oil and urges cooks to "keep in mind American tastes for Italian cuisine and keep the preparation simple." Most contests, says Miller, want quick-and-easy recipes, and so that is what she makes, both for contests and for herself.

"Sometimes I'll spend a lot of time on a recipe, but I guess not too often," she says.

Miller, who is 60, learns about cooking contests on the Internet. One site she refers to frequently is Cooking Contest Central, www.recipecontests.com. Cooking Contest Central is "dedicated to the legions of cooking contest fans across the globe who enjoy participating in this fun and rewarding hobby." It has a forum, where members share stories, advice and encouragement. Postings to the forum are relentlessly positive: "I was happy to see her win"; "it was a learning experience for me"; "it was great fun." Not only are contestants a nice group of people, they are a perversely nice group of people.

"I haven't really encountered any of the cutthroat stuff myself," says Miller. She pauses a moment. "No, nothing like that."

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Elan Head
Contact: Elan Head