09 September 2007

book review: Cookoff

Cookoff: Recipe Fever in America, by Amy Sutherland

Plain and simple, Americans love competetion and Americans love food. Competetive cooking is a natural.

I'm actually not a Food Network watcher, but I may start. This book was fascinating. If you thought that cook-offs are for homemakers at the state fair, you are wrong. There are cooking competitions for the every-day home cook that have prizes worth thousands of dollars. Women who have high-profile, stressful jobs and Type A pesonalities turn to "contesting" as a semi-professional hobby and have kitchens filled with millions of dollars worth of prizes to show for their efforts. Men who have tinkered around in the kitchen once or twice suddenly find themselves with a grand-prize-winning recipe in their hands.

The book is also a discussion of America's love of convenience foods. The author points out that we will spend hours upon hours commuting or watching television without batting an eye, but when Americans cook the food has to be ready in 30 minutes or less. These competitions, particularly the Pilsbury Bake Off, also rely on processed foods, and even the "light" entries are often not that healthy for you.

The contesters who enter dozens of competitions every year are constantly thinking of the mass appeal of a dish, assuming that's what the judges look for in a winning dish. Many believe spinach doesn't have family appeal, for instance. One entrant had to change the name of her dish from Morroccan Chicken to Couscous and Chicken because the judges didn't want a winning dish to sound so "ethnic." In a way, rather than broadening the minds of Americans, foodwise, these competitions dumb down food to the lowest common denominator.

But there's no coverup involved here. Everyone knows the point of these competitions is to sell more product. These competions are a cheap way for Pilsbury or the National Beef Council, or whichever corporation is sponsoring the event, to create recipe libraries without the upkeep of test kitchens. The kitchens of America are the test kitchens. And thousands of recipes are tested and mailed in every year.

I'm now considering Googling "cooking contests" and submitting a recipe or two. I can't eat any of the winning recipes that are published in the book. It would be nice to have a little gluten-free representation out there.

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