The clock was ticking, the counter space was minimal, and the appliances were something less than state-of-the-art. None of it seemed to faze Gina De Roma as she bustled around her boyfriend’s Eagle Rock kitchen, putting the finishing touches on her prize-winning samosas. Let’s see now, where was that leaf-shaped platter? The green chiles? Check. The yogurt-cilantro sauce? Check.
It was the last Friday in February, and De Roma was hurrying to get ready for an interview at KCBS-TV Channel 4, one of several media engagements she has had in recent weeks.
“I can’t believe you’re going to be on TV today,” said De Roma’s boyfriend, Bogie, a rock drummer, as he scarfed down another of the plump, triangular little potato pastries De Roma had made.
To be sure, it did seem a bit strange that De Roma, a free-spirited 39-year-old L.A. massage therapist, yoga practitioner and pro wrestling fanatic, was suddenly being cast in the role of a middle-class domestic goddess.
But De Roma’s life has been spinning in unexpected ways since she was chosen in November as one of the 100 finalists in the 2002 Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest.
For four months, she was on an experimental cooking odyssey, which ended only a few days ago, 2,000 miles from Los Angeles at the Bake-Off in Orlando, Fla.
Regarded by haute cuisine-istas as simply too Main Street for words, Pillsbury’s amateur competition has grown into a sort of Middle-American culinary Olympics since its inception in 1949.
Emphasizing creativity and convenience on a limited budget, the Bake-Off solicits original recipes that generally combine rib-sticking, no-nonsense food with a minimum of preparatory muss and fuss.
The use of (Pillsbury-made) convenience ingredients such as Progresso bread crumbs and Green Giant frozen vegetables is not only allowed but required.
Though De Roma had never entered a cooking competition before, the Hawthorne native decided to try her luck one day after leafing through a recipe book of previous Pillsbury winners. The chance to compete for the $1-million top prize was enticing, she says, so she sent in her entry and waited hopefully.
“I got a call back in mid-November, and I almost said I wasn’t there because I thought they just wanted to sell me a newspaper, or something like that,” she recalled.
“And then the woman said, ‘I’m from the Pillsbury Bake-Off,’ and I said, ‘Aaa-yaaay!’”
For placing in the final 100, De Roma received a new GE Advantium oven and advanced to the bake-off round of the biannual competition. The contest culminated last Wednesday with a nationally televised ceremony in Orlando, Fla., hosted by Marie Osmond.
De Roma, who took Bogie along for the trip, was looking forward to meeting Osmond, whose teen-idol brother, Donny, had been her distant love-object in the early 1970s.
As a schoolgirl, De Roma was president of a short-lived fan club, Donny’s Purple Cap, which once celebrated his birthday by baking purple cupcakes.
De Roma’s unconventional presence among the Pillsbury finalists is an indication of how the Bake-Off has changed over the years.
The contest, which draws tens of thousands of entries (the company won’t say how many exactly), has been a barometer not only of evolving tastes but of social transformations affecting how much time Americans spend in the kitchen, says Pillsbury spokeswoman Kathy Newton.
“It [the contest] was a promotional effort, and that’s how it’s continued through the years,” Newton says. “But it’s grown from kind of a homemaker’s contest to kind of an illustration of the trends of the time.”
The very first Bake-Off winner, one Mrs. Ralph E. Smafield of Rockford, Ill., triumphed with a nutty sweet roll called “Water-Rising Twists.”
One of the recipe’s claims to notability was that somehow “its dough was allowed to rise underwater,” Newton says, though some details may be lost to history.
Held in New York City, the first Bake-Off was attended by no less a personage than Eleanor Roosevelt.
Since then, the Bake-Off has retained something of a white-bread image. In actuality, Newton says, it’s been evolving constantly, folding in new ethnic influences and being reshaped by modern baking methods.
For example, this year’s list of eligible Pillsbury products (contestants must use at least one) included Old El Paso taco sauce and refried beans and Green Giant Mexicorn.
Several of this year’s submitted recipes called for dulce de leche, the caramelized milk sauce that’s popular in Latin American countries. Two years ago, a salsa couscous chicken dish carried off Pillsbury’s top prize.
The contest’s emphasis on relatively quick and easy meals suits De Roma’s cooking style. Between her massage practice, her yoga practice and her time with Bogie and her cats, Carmine and Luigi, she’s as busy as any other 21st century single career woman.
Not so long ago she was even busier, working as an account executive for a major cosmetics company.
“I had the briefcase and the pantyhose and the whole deal,” she says. “Then I found myself at a place where I wanted to do something different ....I always had a little hippie inside me. I wanted to stop and smell the roses.”
De Roma gives the impression of someone who likes to keep her feet firmly planted in the pleasures of the moment, which includes one of her passions, pro wrestling.
“I just got to go to my first smackdown,” she enthused, referring to the World Wrestling Federation’s televised spectacles of meticulously staged mayhem.
“We were sitting near the ramp and it was great. I could see the sweat coming off Kurt Angle.”
De Roma said her love of cooking began in childhood, when she threw a birthday party for her pet cats, complete with party hats. “I think I took Bisquick and a can of tuna and made them cupcakes.” As a little girl, she said, she dreamed of being a chef.
Gradually, she assembled a serviceable repertoire of meals, snacks and miscellaneous treats. One of her current favorites is a burly sandwich that she and Bogie nicknamed “the Sopranwich,” inspired by HBO’s mob melodrama, “The Sopranos.”
“Oh, the Sopranwich is the bomb!” De Roma says. “It’s ground turkey and feta cheese and herbs, inside hollowed-out French bread. So it’s definitely not light, but it is a big hit.”
Cooking and massage therapy really aren’t all that different, De Roma believes.
“When I was little, I had an astrological chart done for me and it said I’d be a good nurse. I don’t think I could handle all the icky parts. But massage and cooking are both nurturing. There’s nothing more comforting than good, comfort food--you know, like baked ziti? And massage, I think it’s preventive medicine.”
De Roma created the samosa recipe last summer, for the birthday party of a friend’s children. Her recipe calls for making a stew that includes a can of chopped green chiles, a can of whole new potatoes, a can of peas and curry power.
This mixture gets rolled up in triangular pieces of Pillsbury Crescent Dinner Roll dough and baked.
“She made ‘em like a couple times over the summer and everybody was like, ‘These are really awesome,’” says Bogie, a South Carolina native whose real name is Hargrove Bowles IV and whose band is called Rokstar--at least for now.
This year’s Bake-Off finalists represented a cross-section of the country. The youngest was 11 and the oldest was 76. Ten were men.
Four other contestants were from Southern California: Prati Parekh of Corona, who’d entered her Corn Pilaf in the Luscious & Lighter category; Pamela Norris of Santa Barbara, whose Easy Three-Cheese Broccoli Couscous was in the same category; Steve Greiger of Oceanside, whose Sticky Chewy Chocolate Pecan Rolls were in the dessert category; and Mary Capone of Long Beach, whose Parmesan Chicken with Pasta Rags was competing under Easy Weeknight Meals.
The bake-off took place in a giant hotel ballroom in Florida equipped with 100 miniature kitchen/food preparation stations. De Roma later described it as “a blast”: so much activity, so much camaraderie, with dozens of volunteer assistants scurrying to and fro.
One of her fellow contestants was pregnant, De Roma said. “Her hormones were raging and she was having a little trouble with her dish, so I was helping her out.”
Seeing all those different cooks in one room, all those recipes with their casual hints of homelands left behind, was inspiring, De Roma says. She had gotten that feeling even before the trip, while checking out the official Bake-Off Web site (www.bakeoff.com). “It kind of touched me,” she says. “We’re all American, and that’s the beautiful thing about it.”
The next day, during the awards ceremony, De Roma even got to chat briefly with Marie Osmond. “Marie’s a pro,” she says. “I told her at one time I was going to be her sister-in-law.”
But her other hopes were dashed. The $1-million grand prize was awarded to Denise Yennie of Nashville, who wowed the judges with her Chicken Florentine Panini, described on the Web site as “flavorful Italian-inspired chicken sandwiches.” Nor was De Roma among the three runners-up or the other prize winners.
“It was really pleasant, other than not winning,” she said a few hours later. And she had a souvenir cookbook of all the contestants’ recipes, a Pillsbury Doughboy bean bag and some great memories. “I probably would enter again, just for the trip,” she said. “They really, really showed us a good time.”
When De Roma got back to L.A., she found numerous phone messages of congratulations.
That night she and Bogie took a break from cooking and went to get a burger at In-N-Out.