The Grandmother of Cooking Contests–The Pillsbury Bake-off

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There was a time when the Pillsbury Bake-Off was a REALLY Big Deal; before television was taken over by reality shows and food challenges. Everyone, even noncooks watched the Bake-off.  Like the swallows in Capistrano or the cherry blossoms in Washington D.C., the Bake-off returned year after year. Back in 1949, it didn‘t start out to be a national treasure.  I wonder how many years the company thought it might last. The original contest known as the Grand National Recipe and Baking Contest was a classy showcase for Pillsbury flour.  It was advertising directed to America’s homemakers.  The first Bake-off was held at the elegant Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and was hosted by CBS radio personality Arthur Godfrey.  A legal entry had to use Pillsbury‘s Best Flour in her recipe. Yes, men are welcome to enter, but the only male champion won in 1996.

Humans have been cooking since fire first burned a roast, and most likely humans have been comparing the flavor of their roasted wooly mammoth against their neighbors’ for just as long. Through the years there have been competitions for chefs, but what genius to have a contest for Mrs. Average American.

Originally The Pillsbury Bake-off was an annual contest, but since 1976 it has been held every other year. A staple on CBS until 2002, the list of Bake-Off hosts is a list of our changing times: Arthur Godfrey, Art Linkletter, Bob Barker, Gary Collins, Willard Scott, Alex Trebek, PhyliciaRashad, Marie Osmond. Apparently the all-important demographics hit even this venerable institution.  It was not broadcast from 2004 – 2006, and since then the Bake-Off has bounced around looking for a permanent home. 

Can you guess the decade?     

Starlight Double-Delight Cake – Yes, the early 50s- where else would we be but the Starlight Drive-In

Accordion Treats – had to be late 50s, when Lawrence Welk and his group entertained us weekly

Golden Gate Snack Bread – Hippies were all over San Francisco in the late 60s

Italian Zucchini Crescent Pie – 1980, what can I say? We were all out growing our vegetables                          

Salsa Couscous Chicken – late 90s – Mexican and Middle Eastern –  America was discovering international was more than French croissants

Pumpkin Ravioli with Salted Caramel Whipped Cream – this year’s winner says a lot about the current trend for combining sweet and salty or savory in our food

If you want to see the entire list check out http://www.pillsbury.com/BakeOff/About/History

For the current top prize of $1,000,000 I might be convinced to cook up something tasty before the next contest rolls around. 

I don’t know the real reasons for creating the Bake-off but I can speculate.  Here’s what I think:

1.  After World War II there was optimism in this country.  The U.S. still had a can-do spirit but there was also an emotional letdown as women returned home to babies, housework and cooking meals day after day.  All these duties essential but none carried the aura of helping defend the country. Women needed to feel useful again and what a wonderful way to do this by showcasing one of women’s creative talents

2.  Some advertising ex was tired of the food his wife was fixing and wanted her to find new things to cook.

3. Cake mixes were starting to become popular and Pillsbury needed to sell more bags of flour.

That’s my top 3 guesses why the Pillsbury Bake-off has been popular for so many year.  What are your thoughts?