Jann Atkins looked tired and happy. As the test kitchen manager for Pillsbury, she spent months overseeing the company's signature bake-off, making sure nothing was missed leading up to the event at the Peabody Hotel.
Now it was almost over.
Eleven judges and I, sequestered for nine hours in a locked and secured room, had decided that the contest's $1 million prize should go to a plate of cinnamon-sugar-dusted pumpkin ravioli with salted caramel whipped cream.
As our de facto house mom, Jann walked to the middle of the judging room as we celebrated with a traditional champagne toast. "Would you like to know who your winners are?" she asked.
It was a snap back to reality. Until this point, we had only tasted blindly, not knowing anything about who made each delicious dish. This was a reminder that real people with real lives were attached to each bite we took.
"Your winner is Christina Verrelli, a wife and mother of two daughters from Devon, Pa," Jann said, hugging her "about book" of contestant bios closely to her chest, "Christina is a homemaker who volunteers at church and in her children's school. She spearheads a recess running program for kids.
"Christina loves all the little things that make life a little easier – pull-out shelves, a pot filler over the stove, one of those built-in soap dispensers," Jann said.
In less than 24 hours, she would get more than just a set of pull-out shelves. In addition to the million dollars, she'd win $10,000 in kitchen appliances from GE.
"She favors comfort foods, especially slow-cooked dishes that make her house smell delicious all day long," she said. "Some of her fondest childhood memories involve summer camping trips with her family of eight and cooking over a campfire or making toast over the camp stove."
I scanned the faces of my fellow judges. Their eyes had tears welling up in them, too. We all struggled so hard to reach a decision that day. We spent almost five hours choosing winners in eight categories and then deliberating about the grand prize. I sampled 26 desserts in less than four hours in a room with no windows. I was a little vulnerable.
Then Jann poured it on.
Maria Vasseur of Valencia, Calif., winner of the breakfast category with her Sausage-Pomodoro Brunch Bake, volunteers at church and her two daughters' school. Donna Wolfe of Hamilton, N.J., maker of the chicken empanada cones that won the dinner entrée competition, loves to create signature dishes for loved ones' birthdays. She bravely gave her 10-year-old godson a crème brulee torch and taught him how to use it. He has been cooking ever since.
Terri Sherman of Palos Heights, Ill., whose crunchy and delicious asparagus, artichoke and red pepper pizza appetizer earned her $5,000, and $3,000 in appliances, loves to act out cooking competitions with her two daughters in her home. When she isn't working or leading weight-management support meetings, she's busy building an arbor for the front yard where she and her fiancé will get married.
By this time, the lump in my throat was meatball size. Several of us dabbed tears. Someone went to fetch some tissues.
"Jann, weren't there any single fathers who like chain smoking and going to the dog track?" I asked.
No such luck. Another look at the about book provided a breathtaking glimpse into the contest's soul.
Marianne Pieper of Beaver Dam, Ky., founded an annual family day in her town 20 years ago. Jone Schumacher of Chapin, Ill., put five children through college and made a daughter's wedding cake while remodeling her kitchen. Kathy Ault of Edmond, Okla., is a boogie-boarding, kayaking grandmother. Julie McIntire of Independence, Mo., grows her own food in a 16-by-20-foot garden. Kathy Matulewicz of Clifton, N.J. speaks to bereavement groups about the healing from grief she experienced after the death of her husband in 2003. She remarried in 2008. "What can I say? I am lucky in love," she said.
Got that lump now, too? Feels good, doesn't it?
The old cliché I hear constantly is that "food is love."
That's indisputably true. I don't think someone who takes the time to make a delicious dish or a tasty meal can be a bad person. Not all home cooks are saints, of course. And you certainly don't have to know how to bake or sauté or broil or mix to reveal the finer points of your character. But there's a direct line from the soul to the plate. You may be able to fake it for a while, but your heart eventually reveals its true nature in your kitchen.
I prefer to borrow another line, this one written by a famous vegetarian home cook named Paul.
In the end, the love you make is equal to the love you bake.