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No Baking? That Truly Takes the Cake

An event that was once the nation's premier cooking contest gets panned.

June 25, 2004|Amy Sutherland

Cultural decline is in the details. That is why the 100 finalists in this year's Pillsbury Bake-Off contest (taking place in Hollywood Saturday through Tuesday) are so worrisome. Looking over the recipes, it's all too plain to miss. There will be next to no baking at the 2004 bake-off.

In fact, the title has nearly become a misnomer.

The bake-off, for decades the premier showcase of Americans' prowess with a home oven, has become, at best, a cook-off, at worst, a heat-off.

For the first time, the contest does not have a category devoted to baked goods. Pies, cakes and cookies could be entered into a vague category called "Weekends Made Special," where they are lumped in with Taco-Ranch-Chicken Sandwiches or Pizza Bubble Ring.

The upshot is, of the 100 finalist recipes only 14 qualify as desserts. There are two pie and a measly half-dozen cookie recipes. Forget layer cakes. There is a smattering of baked goods in the Breakfast Favorites category, but you'll find nary a coffee cake. The true outrage is that only five recipes use chocolate. This from the contest that gave us the Tunnel of Fudge, that legendary Bundt cake that, when cut, magically oozed molten chocolate.

"What's all the fuss?" you ask as you bite into your toaster-warmed Pop-Tart. That the Olympics of cooking contests -- with its $1-million grand prize -- no longer champions home bakers is an acute symptom of a broader, deeper malaise: Across the land, rolling pins are being relinquished and sifters shelved. We gobble up espresso makers and grow fresh basil as our baking tins gather dust. At this rate, we'll soon be saying "as American as store-bought apple pie."

For most of the country's history, home cooks have not had a lot to brag about in the culinary department except when it came to baking. For generations, we have been expert pie-makers and cake-bakers. We gave the world the chocolate chip cookie. The French may have their souffles and quiches, but when it comes to dessert they are renowned for making a beeline to the pastry shop. Americans preheat their ovens and get out the flour canister. Well, at least we used to.

Now, thanks to the processed food industry's century-long campaign to convince us that we do not have the time to bake, many American home cooks have become pastry-averse and batter-baffled. These days if you really want to impress a dinner party, just bake a pie. You'll be treated like a time traveler who has brought a lost art form to the 21st century.

Pillsbury is as guilty as the rest of the processed food industry, maybe more so for turning its back on the bakers that made the company a success. In the conservative yet giddy postwar days of 1949, the Pillsbury Bake-Off burst on to the scene "to honor the fine home bakers of America," as Ann Pillsbury put it. The contest was divided into six sensible categories: cookies, cakes, pies, breads, desserts and, lastly, main dishes.

As long as the Minneapolis-based company just made flour, its popular contest championed baking from scratch. Once Pillsbury began producing refrigerated doughs and then frosting and cake mixes, the contest began that wayward shift toward today's obsession with "quick and easy" recipes. As Pillsbury morphed from flour producer to processed food giant, adding frozen vegetables and salsa to its products along the way, the contest revamped its categories, adding appetizers, salads and the dreaded snacks. Still, through the 1980s, baked goods dominated the bake-off, and even though cake mixes were allowed, many a finalist's recipe was made the old-fashioned way. Heck, the 1992 contest even had a yeast bread made in the, gasp, oven.

To enter this year's bake-off, a contestant needed to use one of 28 products. That list included cereal (a nod to Pillsbury's new owner, General Mills), fruit roll-ups and microwave popcorn. In fact, flour has not been a qualifying ingredient since the 1996 contest. So anything baked from scratch no longer even qualifies.

Sure, American baking had its heyday when women were sentenced to a life of kitchen drudgery. And now we're all so busy, what with careers, book groups and Pilates, no one has time to make a proper biscuit, not to mention a birthday cake. Sometimes I think the only hope for baking in this multi-tasking age is if Detroit starts installing ovens in cars.

America's remaining proud bakers may be few to none at the bake-off, but they can still be found duking it out at the state fairs this summer. You won't find any million-dollar prizes at the fairs. Rather, the contestants will vie for a ribbon, maybe a $25 grand prize and the satisfaction that they are keeping alive a true-blue American tradition.


Amy Sutherland is author of "Cookoff: Recipe Fever in America" (Penguin; 2004).

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