America’s Legendary Bake-Off: Still Top Competition in Food World : Since Its Inception in 1949, Contest Has Been Popular

Times Food Editor

To anyone attending the 32nd America’s Bake-Off last week at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., it was obvious that one of America’s most firmly entrenched cooking contests is thriving.

The Bake-Off has undergone a series of name changes since it appeared on this nation’s food scene as the Grand National Baking Contest in 1949, but the sponsors still come up with recipes that catch the fancy of contemporary cooks.

Co-sponsored by the Pillsbury Co. of Minneapolis and General Electric Co. of Louisville, Ky., which provided spanking new ranges for the contestants to use, the contest is a finely honed sales promotion event designed to showcase the products sold by both firms. And that it does very well.

The Bake-Off not only has survived the vicissitudes of food fads and trends over the years, it has at times contributed to them. Some of this country’s classic home-style recipes such as Dilly Casserole Bread, Orange Kiss Me Cake and the old Tunnel of Fudge Cake were introduced to American cooks via the Bake-Off.

Thirty-seven years after its introduction, the contest remains popular with cooks eager to match recipes and culinary talents with other cooks. It was held annually from its inception in 1949 (except for 1965) until 1978, when the sponsors switched to an every-other-year schedule.

Those who enter this legendary cook-off may be first-timers who have never entered any type of cooking contest before, or they may be cooks who follow food contests avidly. Some enter as many as 30 to 40 recipes in a variety of categories, hoping at least one will bring them glory and a sizable amount of prize money, plus other prizes such as assorted appliances and a free trip to compete as one of the 100 finalists.

Although contest officials decline to reveal how many entries are submitted, they say it is in the tens of thousands.

The Bake-Off contest format has evolved into a more or less routine pattern. Here’s how it works, in general:

Several months before the next Bake-Off is to be held, Pillsbury announces that the contest is under way and that entry blanks will be available at supermarkets and through the media. Contest categories, prizes and rules change from year to year, but usually not extensively.

Entries Start Pouring In

Once the contest is announced and entry blanks are made available, anyone wishing to enter can submit a recipe or recipes according to contest rules. Entries go to Touche Ross & Co., an accounting firm.

Acting as an independent contest agency, Touche Ross handles the preliminary screening of the submitted recipes to be sure entrants have followed rules and met any qualifications specified. Many are eliminated at this point simply because they haven’t followed the contest rules.

When the first screening is finished, the eligible entries are sent to home economists, hired by Touche Ross, who look them over in search of creative recipes that fit the judging criteria.

The names and addresses of the entrants are removed from the recipes selected, and each is given a special code number. The coded recipes are sent to Pillsbury for further evaluation. The number has been whittled at this point, but the company’s home economists are still faced with thousands of recipes from which they must choose 100 finalists to compete at the Bake-Off.

Once again, the recipes are gone over. Are they interesting? Will they have universal appeal? Are they too complicated? Do they call for ingredients or equipment that may not be available everywhere? More entries are weeded out, but 1,500 to 2,000 make it to the test kitchens, where, for the first time, they are prepared and tasted. At this point a lot more are eliminated.

Meanwhile, other food experts are combing cookbooks, magazines and newspapers (and checking recipes printed on rival companies’ food products) to be sure the surviving recipes have not won other food contests or been previously published. This is not an easy chore, considering the number of cookbooks that are published daily.

As the list of recipes still in the running diminishes, the recipes that remain are given rugged tolerance tests to be sure that they’ll work even if home cooks don’t measure quite as accurately as a professional home economist does. They also are checked to be sure that results won’t be totally disastrous when baked in home ovens that may not be calibrated as accurately as the brand new ranges the 100 finalists will use on Bake-Off day.

Up to this point, Pillsbury can control the type of recipes chosen for the finals even though it has no idea who has submitted them or where that person may be from.

Company officials are unwilling to reveal the costs of running the Bake-Off, but with hundreds of thousands of dollars in product sales at stake, it is reasonable to assume recipes that will best promote sales of the products called for in the entry blanks are going to receive more favorable attention than those that don’t.

After weeks of preliminary screening, the final 100 recipes are chosen and the code numbers are given to Touche Ross, which then, at long last, reveals the names and addresses of the winners to Pillsbury.

100 Finalists Selected

Occasionally an entrant who has submitted more than one recipe will have made it to the finals in more than one category. Since rules state that contestants can only compete in one category, one of their entries is chosen, the other or others eliminated and someone else selected for the Bake-Off finals.

When the finalists have been notified, the next phase of this only-in-America extravaganza begins.

A panel of independent judges, usually newspaper and magazine food editors and writers and supermarket consumer affairs representatives, is chosen to judge the finals. In order to assure all contestants equal and honest evaluations of their recipes, every effort is made to prevent contact between judges and contestants before the big day.

Before the final judging, company officials meet with the judges to explain the rules and the judging criteria to be followed.

The Baking Begins

Until the food begins to arrive in the judging room on Bake-Off day, none of the judges has any idea what to expect. They are cloistered away from the Bake-Off floor, where the finalists are either very calmly or nervously preparing their recipes.

Each contestant prepares his or her entry at least twice on Bake-Off day. Once finished, he or she decides which is to be judged and, accompanied by a contest official, takes it to another official seated at a table outside the judges’ room. The contestant leaves and the dish is delivered to the judges.

Only one or two authorized Pillsbury representatives are allowed in the judging room. These officials, usually the company’s consumer service director, the contest manager and the company attorney, deliver the entries and answer any procedural questions during the judging. Each entry arrives in the judging room with only a code number for identification. The recipe accompanies it, and the judges evaluate the entry according to the contest rules.

Bake-Off day can be a day of surprises, for no matter how good an entry may have looked and tasted when prepared by a professional home economist in the Pillsbury test kitchens, this time the person who submitted it is doing the cooking. And that may be good or bad, depending on the contestant’s culinary skills. Contestants are allowed about six hours of cooking time on Bake-Off day, usually plenty to prepare their recipes three or four times rather than the required two.

Deciding Isn’t Easy

When all of the entries are in, the judges make their decisions--no mean feat. Sometimes the decision-making process takes hours; sometimes it goes very quickly.

Whatever the decisions, they remain secret, known only to the judges and selected company officials, until the following day. Contestants have to wait to find out if they are going home materially richer than when they came or just richer for the friendships they’ve made and the experiences they’ve had.

Whether they win or lose, most of the contestants who make it to the Bake-Off finals vow they will do everything they can to return “next time.” There’s a comfortable, down-home appeal to this legendary cooking contest, which may partially explain why it has survived for so many years despite changing life styles and trends.