About: In this engrossing look at the competitive cooking circuit, journalist Sutherland follows the trail of competitions and a small group of regular participants. These often fanatical competitors, complete with their own websites and chat rooms, square off against the amateur one-time-only contenders at local and national levels across the country. With a healthy dose of humor, Sutherland conveys the inside stories and nail-biting moments as the regulars face off. From developing recipes to matching serving wear to outfits, the bravado of the male players and the disasters and pitfalls that can ensue for both regular and amateur alike, this work takes a long, thorough look at this American phenomenon. From chili contests that are more like frat parties to the National Chicken and National Beef competitions, Sutherland crisscrosses the country and along the way conveys her growing enthusiasm for and fascination with why one recipe or dish wins and another loses. She intersperses winning recipes with the account of her own growing delight, which leads her to enter a competition herself. Doing for cookoffs what Anthony Bourdain did for the restaurant business with Kitchen Confidential, Sutherland delivers a wonderful portrait of a true slice of Americana that should have readers reaching for their recipe files and saying, “I can do that.” From Publishers Weekly.
My Thoughts: I stumbled upon this book while rummaging through an excellent bookstore in St. Louis. After perusing the introduction, which is aptly entitled “Start Your Ovens,” I was completely hooked. As soon as I arrived home from my trip, I requested the book from my public library; it couldn’t have arrived soon enough.
The competitive cooking circuit is a wild, wild place. The subculture’s major players, also known as Contesters, are full of intense and creative energy. Some especially dedicated Contesters are known to prepare 10+ complex dishes in a single day in hopes of winning a couple of blue ribbons at the Iowa State Fair. The most hardcore Contesters invent and test 40+ recipes in hopes of qualifying for the holy grail of cookoffs—the Pillsbury Bake-Off—where the grand prize totals a million dollars! Sutherland’s deft storytelling guides readers through this wacky world of cookoffs in very entertaining fashion.
In addition to profiling the Contesters’ personalities and contagious drive, Cookoff explores the influence of cooking contests on America’s food culture. I discovered that the popularity of the bundt cake pan took off in the U.S.A. after the Tunnel of Fudge Cake won the 1966 Pillsbury Bake-Off.
Cookoff is truly a fascinating and fun read. I was jonesing to enter a cooking contest before I reached the end, but then I remembered the ruthlessness of some veteran Contesters and totally wussed out.