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The $50,000 Bonbon


Something goofy is going on at the Hotel del Coronado, because right there at the entrance of the Crown Room--the elegant dining room where the Duke of Windsor was introduced to Wallis Simpson, where L. Frank Baum dreamed up much of the "Wizard of Oz"--stands a walking, waving, button-eyed Doughboy. Next to him is a green-skinned sprite named Sprout, apparently the preferred spokesboy of the Green Giant company, which is now part of Pillsbury, where chipper is better than jolly and gigantic.

It's barely past 6:30 in the morning, too early for cartoon mascots. But the breakfast crowd gathered under the crown-shaped chandeliers for the 36th Pillsbury Bake-Off is wide awake. The coffee and adrenaline flow freely, and a Dixieland jazz band pumps the mood even a notch higher.

Game-show and Bake-Off host Alex Trebek shows up toward the end of breakfast, after the 100 contest finalists have received pep talks from Pillsbury's top executives, and he seems to be the only one affected by the early hour. Later he will walk through the contest hall, face powdered and expensively sweater-dressed, like a good TV personality, but at the moment he is appearing as America rarely sees him--without makeup. No one seems to mind.

"Oh my God, it's Alex," says a finalist to her husband, at first embarrassed to be overheard. "Well, he's just so smart and handsome." In real life, Trebek seems destined to play the role he was given in Robert Altman's "Shortcuts"--a celebrity to be ogled from afar--every time he steps into public view.

There's just one last order of business before the contestants make the grand march into the Bake-Off hall. Everyone stands, the band begins to play and the crowd sings "God Bless America."

"Now, doesn't that feel better?" says Rob Hawthorne, Pillsbury's chief operating officer. "I love tradition."

"I think I'm going to cry," the Trebek fan says. "I mean, this whole thing, it's an American tradition."

The first Pillsbury Bake-Off, in 1949, was devised, company representatives say, as a way to lure women back into the kitchen after they'd had a taste of the working life during World War II. Just as the science of home economics, a few decades earlier, made housewives feel they had a profession, not simply a list of daily chores, the Bake-Off was meant to bring glamour, patriotism--and big money--to America's home bakers.

"A woman seldom bakes a cake, a pie, or a batch of cookies for herself," wrote Ann Pillsbury, then director of Pillsbury's Home Service, in the contest recipe booklet published just after the 1951 Bake-Off (called the Grand National at the time). "But through the foods she bakes, she expresses her thoughtfulness and love to her family, her friends or her church."

Art Linkletter was the celebrity host that year, and first prize, $25,000, went to Mrs. Samuel P. Weston of La Jolla and her Starlight Double-Delight Cake. Women were listed by their husband's names through 1976, when Mrs. Bert Groves and Mrs. Edward F. Smith co-won the grand prize.

These days, the people at Pillsbury look sheepish when they admit the contest's early intentions. But they are quick to point out that today's 100 finalists are a diverse lot. "They are 'doers,' " says this year's Bake-Off program, "with successful careers, who also enjoy a variety of leisure and volunteer activities."

Before the last couple of Bake-Offs, Pillsbury went out of its way to attract cooks of all ethnic groups. Some entry forms were printed in Spanish. Others were published in places where Asians, African Americans and other ethnic cooks would find them.

Still, the majority of the finalists are female and white--this year there are eight men. But only 21 of the women consider themselves full-time homemakers. And there are a lot more savory recipes in the contest these days--mostly due to corporate expansion. With Green Giant in the Pillsbury family, things like frozen and canned vegetable products made it onto the list of required ingredients. (Each recipe must include at least one Pillsbury product, say, the Refrigerated All Ready Pizza Crust or Ready to Spread Frosting Supreme.)

It would be easy to make fun of all this corporate corn. But as the finalists suit up in their royal-blue aprons and get their final instructions ("You'll walk in twos. Meet your partner in the hall where the Sprout and Doughboy are standing--then proceed to your ranges"), it's hard not to get caught up in their excitement.

Inside the hotel's Grande Hall, stern-faced Pinkerton guards ensure that only badged guests are allowed into the viewing area. A Pillsbury coordinator exchanges nervous small talk with the Sprout, only to be interrupted by one of the guards: "Could you step back? We need to get the Doughboy on camera."

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