The nominees swept in on the red carpet as cameras clicked. Dick Clark, tanned and smooth-skinned, cracked jokes and kissed cheeks. The tearful winner of the biggest prize soaked up a standing ovation as confetti swirled.
Tuesday’s Hollywood awards ceremony seemed at first like so many others. Except that the star in the spotlight wore a cardigan and horn-rimmed glasses. And beside her, on a silver platter, was a pie.
Just a few blocks from the erotic museum, across the street from Hooters, a hop from a handful of head shops, the 41st Pillsbury Bake-Off, and its $1-million grand-prize winner, Suzanne Conrad, briefly brought a heartland wholesomeness to Hollywood.
The 34-year-old children’s librarian from Findlay, Ohio, a newcomer to cooking contests, stood in the Grand Ballroom of the Hollywood Renaissance Hotel, flicking flecks of confetti off of her Oats ‘n Honey Granola Pie. She smiled as the Bake-Off’s staff photographer trained his lens on her, coaxing, “Happy! Happy! Work it!”
Asked how she would spend her $1 million, which will come in annual $50,000 installments, she told Clark that she hated her counter tops. (Purple-pinkish Formica, she added later.) She wondered aloud what she would do with her year-old General Electric appliances, now that the same company was giving her a kitchen’s worth of new ones as part of her prize. She said she had always wanted a little cottage on Cape Cod.
From thousands of entries, Bake-Off judges selected 100 finalists, who arrived in town Saturday. On Monday, the 95 women and five men were set up in 100 mini-kitchens in the Grand Ballroom. From 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., they cooked side by side, carefully following the recipes that brought them to Hollywood.
Among the entries: Sausage Crescent Braid, Luau Tacos, Pizza Bubble Ring and Creamy Spinach-Artichoke Mini Pizzas.
Contest rules require the use of at least one of the company’s products. But now that Pillsbury is owned by General Mills, the list of possible products to use has grown. Signs for Cheerios, Progresso, Yoplait and Hamburger Helper lined the ballroom walls. Brand logos even were imprinted on the round confetti discs, each about the size of a quarter.
The contest, started in 1949, first emphasized home baking. Now the stress is on speed and convenience, and recipes rely heavily on processed foods. Contest categories include Weekends Made Special, described as “special yet simple-to-prepare recipes,” and Dinner Made Easy, recipes that can be prepared, or ready for cooking, in 15 minutes. America’s Greatest Cheese Recipe Awards, sponsored by the American Dairy Assn., called for recipes using at least 1 1/2 cups of two or more types of American-made cow’s milk cheese.
Conrad’s recipe, submitted in Weekends Made Special, has a pecan pie-like filling, with a Pillsbury crust and a topping made with Nature Valley Oats ‘n Honey Crunchy Granola Bars. The recipe calls for crushing the granola bars in their wrappers.
She said she created the recipe because it’s easy and because she makes “terrible apple pie.”
“It’s always a disaster,” she said.
The ceremony started at 8 a.m, well before much of the surrounding neighborhood had shaken itself awake. An efficient 45 minutes later, the ballroom was all but empty, and the Bake-Off crowd was beginning to gather, with luggage, in the lobby.
Many contestants said they had barely ventured outside the hotel during their stay.
Sherry Smith, 62, of Bunker Hill, W.V., is a veteran of cooking competitions who has been in the National Beef Cook-Off twice. She came to Hollywood with her son-in-law, Will, whose Cinnamon French Toast Bake made the finals.
The family, she said, walked down Hollywood Boulevard, nonplused.
“It wasn’t all the glitter and beautiful buildings that we expected,” she said. “I didn’t know that the Hollywood Hills was just homes in the hills.”
As for Conrad, she said that she and her husband, Mike, an emergency medical services pilot, used the contest to spend some time together as their small children stayed home with relatives.
“I didn’t really get to see too much,” Suzanne Conrad said. “But I actually got to finish cups of coffee before they got cold. And I sat down and ate a real meal.”
In their one slice of free time, the Conrads, who have a 10-month-old daughter and a 2-year-old son, saw the latest Harry Potter movie, because the books are Suzanne Conrad’s favorites.