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Food & Dining

Houck: Judging Bake-off a weighty responsibility

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Published:   |   Updated: November 24, 2013 at 05:41 PM

LAS VEGAS — Strange memories of too many nights in Sin City. Is it five days later? Six? Seems like a lifetime ago, the kind of stiff, perfect peak of a whipped cream experience that never comes again.

But here I am, freshly emerged from the belly of the 46th Pillsbury Bake-Off whale, trying to recall what actually happened, sifting the surreal from proven fact.

Forty years ago, gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson swan-dived into all that Las Vegas could offer. He left in a blur of hallucinations, car wrecks and hotel rooms with bills for the damage numbering in the thousands.

I went to Vegas earlier this month at the invitation of Pillsbury to help decide which home cook had made the most creative and delicious use of their extensive line of grocery products. I left in a blur of a giant walking boy made of dough, a rental car collision agreement that inexplicably remained intact and a hotel room that seemingly plotted against me.

As Hunter said, you buy the ticket, you take the ride.

***

To understand the American icon that is the Pillsbury Bake-Off, you need to understand what it isn't. Specifically, this isn't a quaint scratch cooking contest for fluffy grandmas in gingham aprons.

The #PBO, as the tweeters call it, is a marketing behemoth of epic size and dimension. For one glorious day, the Minneapolis-based company flies 100 home cooks (97 women and three men this year) and their family members to a single location, assembles 100 makeshift kitchens and countertops side by side in a ballroom, and lets the contestants create their best dessert, breakfast, appetizer or dinner using Pillsbury products.

Grand prize: $1 million.

This month's bake-off was the 46th time Pillsbury has assembled such a spectacle. In recent years, it has been held every two years, alternating between giant hotels in Dallas and Orlando.

But this is the era of Instagram and Snapchat and selfies. Two years is an eternity. And unlike 1949, when the bake-off started at the prim and prestigious Waldorf Astoria, two years between million-dollar winners is two years too long. This is a country that Wikipedias the latest results of “Chopped” and “Hell's Kitchen” with lightning speed. Food contests are everywhere now, nibbling at Pillsbury's heels, so the company plans to hold the bake-off every year and take it on the road to more places. In 2014, the circus will move to Nashville.

This year, Pillsbury dipped a toe into Las Vegas, pushing all of its corporate chips to the center of the table at the Aria hotel. It was a gamble of sorts, mashing up the clean image of home baking with the hyperplastic prism of the flamingo in the desert.

The doughboy. At a casino. Without irony.

Gonzo.

This I had to see.

***

Judging the Pillsbury Bake-Off means signing myriad forms that declare you will, in essence, keep your big yap shut.

This is a contest, after all. One with a great deal of money at stake. The criteria for judging, the format by which 100 dishes are judged, even the very look of the room on judging day are considered trade secrets by Pillsbury, its parent company General Mills and its Ohio-based affiliate, the J.M. Smucker Co.

What I can tell you is this: The judges take on the task with great seriousness.

Joining me this year were Lynn Blanchard, test kitchen director for Better Homes & Gardens; Alice Currah, cookbook author and blogger at Savory Sweet Life; food writer and cookbook author David Joachim; Lori Lange, cookbook author and blogger at Recipe Girl; Charlyne Mattox, food editor at Real Simple magazine; and John Szymanski, corporate chef for Kroger groceries.

My category assignment this year was “Simple Sweets & Starters” — desserts and appetizers. Thank goodness I had the steady hand of food marketing expert and journalist Phil Lempert and food writer and blogger Nicole Weston to guide me.

Our category had 34 finalists.

Think about that for a moment.

Even if you take only one bite of each recipe, it still requires a judge to take THIRTY-FOUR BITES OF FOOD NEVER INTENDED TO BE SIMULTANEOUSLY IN THE SAME BELLY.

I'm sorry, but I think that's an amazing achievement.

Imagine the best meal you've ever had. The finest vittles. Cooked by the most accomplished chef on Earth. An absolute dream buffet of flavors. Ask yourself this: Would you eat 34 bites of it? Would you want that many? How would your soul respond? More importantly, how would your innards?

Now imagine if that meal was prepared by 34 nervous home cooks using brand new equipment under the most intense spotlight possible for the highest stakes for which they'll ever compete.

In that context, 34 bites takes on new meaning

For the better part of three hours, Nicole, Phil and I pushed our way through tarts, cookies, cakes, pizzas, tacos and so many things I cannot begin to remember. Then we sat for another four hours, whittling our way to a final champion, as well as winners in ancillary categories.

We did this in a windowless brown paper bag of a conference room with cathedral ceilings, a leather pit group and fake lighted trees on the walls. Every trip to the bathroom, which according to my OCD was 212 steps away in a back channel of the Aria, required an escort to ensure that no contact was made between any judges and contestants. During one trip back to the room, I hummed the theme to “Lawrence of Arabia.”

None of the entries comes into the judging room with anything more than a number and a description. So extreme is the demand that judge and cooks never come in contact that Pillsbury emailed each of us to stipulate that we avoid reading anything about the contest or about anyone in our area who qualified for the trip to Vegas.

During a radio interview prior to the bake-off, a host happened to mention that several finalists were from Florida, a fact of which I was previously unaware. On the air I did that thing 5-year-olds do where they clasp their ears and yell, “LA-LA-LA, I AM NOT LISTENING!”

After the contest, I would read that seven from Florida qualified, including Bethany Perry of Largo, Debbie Reid of Clearwater, JoAnne Tucker and Anna Zovko of Tampa and Marie Valdez of Brandon. The truth is, I didn't want to meet them.

I lack the emotional fortitude necessary to look people in the eyes and tell them that their dish was delicious, but not quite enough to win a million dollars and change their life forever. I am a frightened little rabbit of a man in that regard.

Which is why I went in search of Thai food, dive bars and lounges with flaming fountains until 2 a.m. on the night before the contest. It was pure passive-aggressive avoidance of the Herculean task ahead.

***

In my own defense, let me first say that I am a lousy drinker. My house is full of dusty wine bottles, full-to-the-brim whiskey decanters and empty glasses. I enjoy beer, but only one glass at a time and frequently weeks or months apart unless professionally obligated.

Which reminds me that it's time for a gratuitous Hunter S. Thompson quote:

“Take it from me, there's nothing like a job well done. Except the quiet enveloping darkness at the bottom of a bottle of Jim Beam after a job done any way at all.”

I am no Hunter S. Thompson.

Which is to say that when I went with a group to the Double Down bar off the Vegas strip, I did so in order to walk in the path of Anthony Bourdain, who just so happened to be in town that same weekend. He declared on Eatocracy.com that the Double Down, which has the words “SHUT UP AND DRINK” painted in white letters on a graffiti-strewn black wall next to a pool table, is a dive bar of the highest magnitude.

He was right. It was magnificent. They served bacon martinis. They played The Ramones. And they took advantage of poor wanna-be rebel tourists like me by selling hunch punch in a souvenir porcelain toilet at $10 a pop. I can't print the drink's name in an upstanding publication such as this. Suffice to say it was referred to as “Hiney Water.” The pitying look on my wife's face as she sat next to me said, “Intervention.”

We also spent a large portion of the pre-bake-off night at Lotus of Siam throwing culinary pleasures of the Far East down our gullet. This was another Bourdain recommendation, one with a tremendous menu in an off-the-strip strip mall that has a billiards hall, multiple Asian nail salons and a swingers club as neighbors.

Don't let the scary place fool you. We were the last table to leave that night (I know this because the staff frantically vacuumed around our table as a hint), and when we went out to the parking lot, we found my rented Volvo SUV with the lights on. And the push-button engine still running. Unlocked.

Say what you will, but pool players, nail techs and those with liberal views of human intimacy have standards. And those standards exclude the theft of Swedish rental vehicles in the desert.

I forgot to mention that Bourdain walked past us at the Cosmopolitan Hotel on his way to a swanky nightclub. I shouted, “TONY!” in an overly loud way that said to him, “Walk faster, he might be packing.” Which he did, like a gastronomic mirage in the neon glare.

Back in my room that night, the hotel's push-button controls, which manipulate all of the lights, TV and curtains, refused to do what I asked. The motorized curtains kept going back and forth. From the outside, it must have appeared to be some kind of Morse Code cry for help.

In a way, it was.

***

“Padma is coming in.”

Four words I've wanted to hear ever since I began watching “Top Chef.”

Each year, Pillsbury hires a celebrity guest host to throw a little Hollywood on the bonfire. In 2010, it was Food Network's Sandra Lee, who hugged anything that got within arm's reach before sending finalists to be crowned on “Oprah.” In 2008, it was Joy Behar of “The View,” who dropped menopause jokes in a room full of hot-flash sufferers. Last year, The Martha dropped by to ingest Pillsbury into her teetering television show.

This year, the winner would appear on the quick-rising “Queen Latifah Show.” But due to family issues, the Queen would not be joining us at the Aria. Instead, Padma Lakshmi of Bravo's “Top Chef” would host the awards show and celebration dinner.

Earlier in the day, judges were told Padma was planning to visit our deliberations room for a tour. I was not psychologically prepared for such news. As an avid “Top Chef” fan, I am fully aware of Ms. Lakshmi's silky, sultry persona and her extensive portfolio of partially clothed modeling.

As previously announced, Padma glided into our room as if carried by winged unicorns on billowy clouds. She floated from table to table, making calorie-free chit-chat with judges in front of the video crew. When she got to our table, she asked, “Are you all full from eating yet?”

Whattosay, whattosay?

I cleared my throat. “It's a little like that first episode every season of 'Top Chef' where you have to eat food from 20 chefs,” I said.

“Exactly!” Padma said.

She spoke to me. She spoke with me. For one shining moment. Bourdain didn't do that. Then again, I didn't shout, “TONY!” at Padma.

The judges gathered around Padma for a group photo. I stood behind her right shoulder. She smelled like cinnamon. A stylist at the last moment rushed in a panic toward the former model.

“She has a hair out of place,” the stylist said.

The photographer snapped the pic.

I would show it to you but Padma would not permit electronic transmission of said photo.

But it happened. I promise.

***

Later that night, Padma announced the million-dollar winner at the celebration dinner: Glori Spriggs of nearby Henderson, Nev. A home cook who had never entered a contest before, her Loaded Potato Pinwheels took the top prize over a Caprese Pizza Bake casserole and an almond tart so ornate and delicate, it would have made Faberge blush.

The winner took the simplest idea and made it fun. The same ingredients as a loaded baked potato, complete with toppings of sour cream, chives and bacon bits, piped into a Pillsbury dough in bite-size form. I had visions of it showing up at parties, tailgates and my house when I got home.

When Spriggs' name was announced, the tiny woman appeared stunned by the spectacle of it all. No tears. No screaming. Just a frozen astonishment. A blizzard of confetti erupted in the banquet hall. And like a magic trick, Padma vanished from the stage. Only the winner and an inflatable walking Doughboy stood on the huge stage.

After the confetti settled, Spriggs stood nearly motionless with her daughter, who loves to cook as much as her mother. The two became targets for cellphone snaparazzi who sent their image far and wide.

An hour later, Spriggs was asked what she would spend the money on. “My daughter has two jobs, so I'm going to make her quit one of them,” she said.

And then reality crashed the party. Someone's life went from black and white to color in an instant. Because of puff pastry and mashed potatoes and marketing and Padma and a computer-drawn casino, the lungs in one family would breathe a little easier.

As the Gonzo Man wrote:

“Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run, but no explanation, no words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant.”

I bought the ticket. I took the ride.

jhouck@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7324

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