The largest competitive cooking event in the United States is the annual Pillsbury Bakeoff in which 100 finalists compete for combined prizes of more than a million dollars. Since the first Bakeoff in 1949, more than 4000 finalists have competed for category and grand prizes. Each year, entrants send in their own recipes to Pillsbury hoping to become one of the finalists; the recipes, in each of six categories, must employ at least two products from a specified list of foods produced by Pillsbury and its allied companies. Food professionals are excluded from the Bakeoff. Pillsbury pays the expenses to bring the 100 finalists together to the gala Bakeoff, at which time the meals are produced for real, judged, and the winners announced. The Bakeoff is televised, highly promoted, and big business for the companies involved.
The Bakeoff is simply the largest of any of the hundreds of competitive cooking events—often called “cookoffs”—that take place all over the United States. Some other corporate-sponsored competitions—National Chicken, Southern Living, National Beef, and Sutters Home—pay up to $100,000 to their winners.
Many food companies run recipe competitions in which chefs send in their recipes, using the company’s products, and stand to win small prizes, often samples of the product. The Tetley Tea Company, for example, awards a selection of tea to the consumer who sends in the best “Tetley Moment,” an evocative description of a moment of relaxation spent with the company’s tea. Whole Foods Market, a national natural foods grocery chain, awards a $25 gift card every month for the best natural recipe. Diamond Nut Company awards a nut recipe book every week for the best recipe that uses its products. True competitive cooking, however, requires the contestant to submit a dish he or she actually cooks.
A cooking competition may have geographic levels; your apple pie or chili will first win at the county fair, then the state fair, then at a regional food association, then off you go to the national finals to compete against the best in the country. Many amateur contestants enter these events for the love of cooking; prizes may be nominal (a ribbon, a trophy, a cookbook or an item of food equipment), and even the national winner of a $10,000 prize may have to spend that much just to get through all the levels to the finals.
The International Chili Society sanctions chili cookoffs all over the United States, for example. Contestants may use no pre-cooked ingredients (other than certain canned items like tomatoes) and are given a minimum of three and a maximum of four hours to do the cooking. Judges consider good flavor, texture of the meat, consistency, blend of spices, aroma, and color in each of the categories. The 2006 finals, sponsored by the ConAgra Corporation, took place in Omaha, Nebraska amid much fanfare and media coverage; the festival atmosphere, and the chance to taste a up to 400 varieties of chili, drew thousands of paying spectators. The winner in the “Traditional Red” chili category walked away with $30,000, the “Chili Verde” (green chili) champion won $3,000 and the “Salsa” champion took home $1,000.
The National Championship Barbecue Cookoff, which held its 2006 championships in Meridien, Texas, operates on a similar basis, awarding a total of $19,000 in prizes to its finalists. Dozens of competing barbecue festivals flourish through the land. Festivals and cookoffs cover foods as disparate as garlic (in garlic-mad Gilroy, California), lobster (in Rockland, Maine), potatoes (in Barnesville, Minnesota), hard crabs (in Crisfield, Maryland), gumbo (in Bridge City, Louisiana), apples (in Cashmere, Washington), stew (in Hopkins County, Texas, an area known for its distinctive stews), chili peppers (in Hatch, New Mexico), sausages (in Hermann, Missouri), cornbread (in Pittsburg, Tennessee), maple syrup (in St. Albans, Vermont), crawfish (in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana), seafood (on Kodiak Island, Alaska), cheese (in Little Chute, Wisconsin), and make sure not to forget the annual duck races and attendant fanfare in Deming, New Mexico.
Besides these national festivals, which are frequently televised, schools, churches and community associations all over the United States hold literally thousands of food competitions throughout the year, often with a division in which school-aged children can compete.