Following the flourish of competitive cook-offs

Posted: Sunday, January 04, 2004

PORTLAND, Maine Three decades ago, Roxanne Chan entered a cooking contest on a whim and won an 18-volume set of ''Better Homes & Gardens'' cookbooks.

Now a top-winning cooking contest competitor, she averages 25 victories a year, netting prizes ranging from cookbooks to exotic trips overseas to cold, hard cash.

But for Chan, it's not the prizes that keeps her pots full of new culinary inventions.

It's the glory.

''I just like to be in the winner's circle, and I like to create recipes. It just sort of gives me a high to come up with a great idea,'' she said from her home in San Francisco.

Chan and other aspiring cook-off winners are profiled by Amy Sutherland in ''Cookoff: Recipe Fever in America'' (Viking, $24.95).

A food writer for the Portland Press Herald, Sutherland was sent to cover a Maine contestant's chance at winning the world series of cooking contests, the 2000 Pillsbury Bake-Off in San Fran-cisco.

She wasn't sure what she'd find, but she and her colleagues had a picture in mind. ''When I tell people about contesters, they assume they are all middle-aged house fraus in aprons churning out endless renditions of casseroles,'' she writes.

What she found were postal workers, a junior high school student, a funeral director. They were people of all ages and places, each competing to win a $1 million prize for the best recipe.

''Ultimately, it's a people book, and food is the glue,'' Sutherland said during a recent interview in Portland. ''It was a great way to see people from all walks of life, and that's what's so cool about cooking food.''

While the Maine contestant didn't win, Sutherland's pitch to Viking to write a cooking contest book did.

With its wit and quirky stories, she invites readers into a world of ''heartbreak, glory and big money on the competitive cooking contest.'' Throughout the book, she manages to unlock the humor and inherent Americanness in competitive cooking contests.

''These were everyday people who, thanks to an often thankless task, cooking, had had something big happen to them,'' she writes. ''From the confines of their kitchens they had catapulted to a national stage.''

Over a year, she went to a dozen cook-offs garlic, beef, chicken, chili, barbecue, jambalaya, corn bread and others culminating in the bi-annual Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest and its $1 million grand prize. She followed contestants along the way, including Denise Joanne Yennie of Nashville, Tenn., who won for her Chicken Floren-tine Panini.

''My goal was to make a million by the time I was 40, and now I've done it,'' Yennie said proudly after her win.

Judges at corporate-sponsored contests look for easily reproduced recipes that incorporate the sponsor's products, like Pillsbury croissant rolls, in the ingredients. Leaving a company product off the ingredient list is grounds for immediate disqualification.

Sutherland says most cooks just try to have fun, whether they're first-timers or seasoned contesters.

''These people still keep cooking as a hobby, and few of them are true full-time cooking professionals. So they're both serious and having fun,'' she says.

Pillsbury gives away the most cash, but there is a long road leading to it. A dozen or so national cooking contests are held each year, and many offer substantial prizes, from $5,000 to $100,000. Below that are recipe contests with no cooking involved, which can offer up to $10,000. Pillsbury hiked its grand prize from a paltry $20,000 to $1 million in 1994, fearing that without a big payoff the media might lose interest.

In the end, the temptation to compete was too much to endure. Sutherland couldn't resist and entered the Southern Living Cook-Off.

She thought she'd have an advantage, having spent a year trapezing from one cooking contest to another. She entered a category called ''new twists on Southern classics'' with a ''Cranberry Pumpkin Corn-bread Coffeecake with Pecan Streusel'' recipe and hoped for the best.

It was a disaster.

She violated one of the most important rules she had learned along the way: Always read the recipe carefully, and many, many times.

There was pumpkin in the recipe, pumpkin in the title, pumpkin in the directions, but no pumpkin on her ingredients list. She had forgotten to list it.

It was a classic newbie mistake.

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