Have Minnesota cooks lost their mojo?
It appears so, judging from their absence in this year's Pillsbury Bake-Off, the arbiter of popular cooking.
For the first time in 62 years, there are no finalists from our state among the 100 who will move on to the actual Bake-Off event in March.
What happened? We've been a leader in cooking competitions for years.
"No kidding? Oh, my gosh!" said Marjorie Johnson of Robbinsdale, the avid Minnesota baker who has often bantered with Jay Leno about cooking on "The Tonight Show." "That's really something."
Johnson was a finalist at three Bake-Offs. Her first contest took place in 1973, after 21 years of entering. "When I make up my mind to do something, I just work harder. The more I didn't win, the more determined I was to win or die in the attempt."
That was back in the days when flour was a serious competitive ingredient in the Bake-Off -- and Johnson was a baker. "All you do now is open up a package. I couldn't do it now," she said.
Even Pillsbury was surprised by the numbers, though its official statement was circumspect:
"The Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest received tens of thousands of entries and each one was evaluated by a panel of food experts with personal information, such as names and geography, removed. It's unusual to have no Minnesota finalists. We certainly encourage Minnesota cooks to enter future contests and compete for the opportunity to represent our home state at the contest finals."
Minnesota had its most Bake-Off finalists in 1984 -- 13 of them, a baker's dozen.
The news about the finalists stunned Beatrice Ojakangas, the Duluth cookbook author whose work is in the James Beard Foundation's Cookbook Hall of Fame. "It surprises me. It really does.
"The Bake-Off has always been an important thing to people in Minnesota. What goes quickly through my mind is that our population has changed. Maybe there are not so many bakers and cooks like we used to have. That could be very significant. That tells how different we are today."
In 1957 Ojakangas won the Bake-Off's second grand prize (a category that no longer exists in current contests) for her Chunk O' Cheese Bread. "That was when cooking was really cooking at the Bake-Off," she said. "Today it isn't cooking as much as it's more like assembling. It's people doing all kinds of strange things with prepared products."
That could be part of the reason for the lack of Minnesota finalists, she mused: Fewer cooks in the state might be using prepared foods.
"Maybe Minnesota cooks are better than average about cooking from scratch," Ojakangas noted with a laugh. "Perhaps that speaks to our kind of values here in Minnesota."
Then again, we could blame our Bake-Off decline 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?
Find the 100 finalist recipes at www.bakeoff.com. The winner will be announced March 27.
At left is a taste of recipes in this year's Bake-Off competition.