Susie Littlefield of Royal City, Wash., is one of 100 finalists in the Pillsbury… (Kim Murphy / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Royal City, Wash. — These days, celebrity cooks are as abundant as cheap Chardonnays -- and often about as good. Sure, everybody has rediscovered Julia Child, thanks to Meryl Streep, and many now are slogging doggedly through three nightmarish pages of her recipe for boeuf boeuf bourguignon.
But would you really go out of your way to braise pearl onions if all you needed was something to take to the Elks Lodge for a hot dish supper? What if you just wanted a tasty meatloaf that would slice up real nice for sandwiches the next day? Are you going to take cream-filled pate a choux to the Christmas cookie exchange?
Didn't think so. Neither would Susie Littlewood. She brought plain, but dreamy, fudge to the party this year.
Here in Royal City, that's what Littlewood is known for: the potluck salad that goes beyond the Jell-O mold (though, mind you, no one here has a problem with Jell-O), the Sloppy Joes with an extra kick of spice ("to die for," her teenage daughter's friends say), and everybody always raves about her hamburger stroganoff (packaged brown gravy mix -- would I tell?).
Which made it a very big deal when the 41-year-old bookkeeper was named as a finalist in the Pillsbury Bake-Off -- with a shot at the $1-million grand prize and a tip of the chef's hat from anyone who believes "gourmet" and "peanut butter" are not mutually exclusive.
Littlewood's meal ticket: "Caramelized Red Onion Feta Burgers," a gooey concoction of herbed sauce, grape jelly-infused onions and melted cheese that redefines the backyard barbecue favorite.
"It's been more than I can even wrap my mind around," Littlewood said last week in the kitchen of her triple-wide on the outskirts of this orchard town of 1,800 in eastern Washington.
"Think about it. I have a one in a hundred chance of winning a million dollars. All my friends say that's better than the Lotto," she said. "I mean, I'm a hick! I live in a trailer. I live in a town without a stoplight. I drive a minivan!"
Littlewood, who by day is a payroll officer for the Royal School District, by night produces a cooking blog, HickChick, that celebrates the down-home sensibility she brings to cooking for her two daughters.
"What I am is, I'm a recipe junkie. I have a ton of cookbooks over here," she said, pointing to the tilting stacks in her dining room. "And I'm always finding new recipes online. But . . . if I want to make all these wonderful recipes I find, I've gotta plan. I really like the meal planning part of it. It gets me to actually cook all these dishes that I want to make."
Littlewood's easy smile, apple blossom cheeks and occasional habit of piling her hair on top of her head sometimes make her seem almost Palinesque. She also shares that sense of pit bull determination. Littlewood is a fast-moving submarine on constant patrol, cruising the Internet, food TV shows and the occasional neighbor's kitchen for recipes that will stand up to the often-withering scrutiny of Khrystal, 12, and Samantha, 10, known on the blog as "the Chickies."
Though she says her forte is meal planning, not recipe creation, Littlewood has a way of tweaking the exotic recipe and coming up with a version that will go over well in her own finicky household.
"She's a good cook. But sometimes she cooks some -- well, pretty interesting stuff. The other day she made, like, these little rib thingies? With, what was that? Polenta? That was something," Khrystal said, a wry look on her face.
"Braised short ribs," Littlewood said curtly.
"Look, though, I'm talking to my friend here," Khrystal said, pointing to her laptop. "And she said to tell you, 'Good luck,' Mom. And she loves your spaghetti."
HickChick brings its readers along for Littlewood's journey through the week's meal planning dilemmas -- and delights.
"When was the last time I used the crockpot?? Way tooooooo long," mused one of her recent postings. "How about a roast chicken on tin foil balls. Except, I'll put some potatoes in those tin foil balls."
Or on a recent Monday: "I saw a picture of a chicken fried steak that looked extra yummy, but I'll just make my momma's recipe (basic breading with saltine crackers), mashed potatoes and a cream gravy. YUMMY!"
Her enthusiasm can be infectious, even for those not committed to joining her in search of the perfect meatloaf. (It only took her eight years to find what she says is the best spaghetti sauce recipe ever.)
"I cook as much from scratch as I can. Not to say there isn't cream of mushroom soup in my cupboard, because there is. But my freezer's full of chicken stock. . . . What makes me happy is having a pot full of chicken bones on my stove boiling on a Sunday," Littlewood said.
"If I'm asked to take something to a potluck . . . I look for something that's just a little bit different, a little bit out of the ordinary.
"A seven-layer salad, that's been done. I want something that people are going to say, 'You remember that salad Susie made?' "