Long before “Top Chef” and TV’s other “reality” food competitions, there was only one culinary contest that mattered. Ask any Minnesotan of a certain age with a drawer full of recipes.
The Pillsbury Bake-Off, which debuted in 1949.
The longest continuously running cooking contest in the country brought not only a new word to the dictionary (bake-off), but original recipes to the kitchen (French Silk Pie, Tunnel of Fudge Cake, Peanut Blossoms cookies), as well as a “new” pan (the Bundt).
Even without its start at the Minneapolis headquarters of Pillsbury, a contest of this significance would have been highlighted in the local food pages.
In 1969, when grand-prize winner Edna (Holmgren) Walker of Hopkins left the stage with $25,000 for her Magic Marshmallow Crescent Puffs, Taste was only months shy of its October debut. In 1999, when Taste interviewed her at age 88, she said, “I still have the balance of those winnings in a CD and have taken numerous trips with the interest.”
In 1988, Julie Konecne Bengtson of Bemidji, Minn., would win the grand prize with her Chocolate Praline Layer Cake, which earned her $40,000. Both women were among the first 10 recipients in the Bake-Off Hall of Fame as Pillsbury honored the contest’s 50th birthday. (And we know 50!)
But even cooking contests can’t rest on their laurels. They need to reinvent themselves, and in doing so, they reflect new trends in American kitchens. Some highlights:
1949: The Grand National Recipe & Baking Contest began for the sole purpose of promoting flour, with former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt as celebrity guest. Three Minnesota women were among the 100 finalists at that first gathering.
1958: First use of “Bake-Off” in the contest name: Grand National Bake-Off.
1968: The contest rules expanded beyond flour to include Pillsbury mixes and refrigerated doughs.
1984: The most Minnesota finalists — 13 — competed of any single Bake-Off contest.
1988: The contest expanded beyond baking to include cooking, with the addition of Green Giant vegetables as ingredients. Microwaving and stir-frying were added as possible cooking techniques.
1990: Pillsbury actively sought what it referred to as “ethnic” entries to reflect the growing number of immigrants and their infusion of ingredients and taste preferences into the American marketplace. Spanish-speaking home economists were part of the process used to determine the 100 finalists, with “several hundred entries written in Spanish,” Taste reported.
1992: The finalists used a variety of ingredients that year that reflected the changing tastes of Americans, and the resulting additions to the supermarket, including tomatillos, jicama, couscous, coconut milk, cilantro and black beans.
1996: The grand prize hit $1 million, the largest award for a cooking contest. The contest itself pivoted to highlight quick meal preparation. The winning recipe, however, was more traditional, Macadamia Fudge Torte, though the contestant broke new ground as the first — and only — man to win the grand prize in its 47 years.
1998: Flour was dropped as a qualifying product. The grand-prize winner, Ellie Mathews, won for her Salsa Couscous Chicken and went on to write about her experience in “The Ungarnished Truth: A Cooking Contest Memoir.”
2012: For the first time, there was no Minnesota finalist in the 62-year-old contest. It was suggested in the February report from Taste that the demise could be blamed on global warming. “In the past, we credited the climate for our Minnesota prowess as serious cooking competitors. When snow and cold kept us inside, some activity — any activity — was necessary to battle cabin fever. When the weather got tough, we headed to the kitchen. Well, take a look around. Do you see winter?”
2013: Taste noted that cooks needed “a virtual spreadsheet to keep track of the rules and timeline,” which involved different deadlines for various categories, as well as requirements to use ingredients from two lists.
2017: The prize dropped to $50,000 but included a kitchen makeover of appliances; the contest continues today.