A no-bake bake-off takes the cake

Cultural decline is in the details. That is why the 100 finalist recipes in this year's Pillsbury Bake-Off contest were so worrisome. Looking over the recipes, it's all too plain to miss. There was next to no baking at the 2004 bake-off.

In fact, the title has nearly become a misnomer. The bake-off, for decades the premier showcase of Americans' prowess with a home oven, has become, at best, a cook-off, at worst, a heat-off.

For the first time, the contest did not have a category devoted to baked goods. Pies, cakes, and cookies could be entered into a vague category called "Weekends Made Special," where they are lumped in with Taco-Ranch-Chicken Sandwiches or Pizza Bubble Ring.

Although the winning entry, announced Tuesday, was the Oats 'n Honey Granola Pie, only two pie and a measly half-dozen cookie recipes were among the 100 finalists. The true outrage is that only five of the recipes use chocolate. This from the contest that gave us the Tunnel of Fudge, that legendary Bundt cake that, when cut, magically oozed molten chocolate.

"What's all the fuss?" you ask as you bite into your toaster-warmed Pop-Tart. That the Olympics of cooking contests - with its $1 million grand prize - no longer champions home bakers is an acute symptom of a deeper malaise: Across the land, rolling pins are being relinquished and sifters shelved. At this rate, we'll soon be saying "as American as store-bought apple pie."

Thanks to the processed food industry's century-long campaign to convince us that we do not have the time to bake, many home cooks have become pastry-averse and batter-baffled. These days if you really want to impress a dinner party, just bake a pie. You'll be treated like a time traveler who has brought a lost art form to the 21st century. Pillsbury is as guilty as the rest of the processed-food industry for turning its back on the bakers that made the company a success. In the conservative yet giddy postwar days of 1949, the Pillsbury Bake-Off burst on the scene "to honor the fine home bakers of America," as Ann Pillsbury put it. The contest was divided into six sensible categories: cookies, cakes, pies, breads, desserts, and, lastly, main dishes.

As long as the Minneapolis-based company just made flour, its popular contest championed baking from scratch. Once Pillsbury began producing refrigerated doughs and then frosting and cake mixes, the contest began that wayward shift toward today's obsession with "quick and easy" recipes. In fact, flour has not been a qualifying ingredient since the 1996 contest.

Sure, American baking had its heyday when women were sentenced to a life of kitchen drudgery. And now we're all so busy, what with careers, book groups, and Pilates, no one has time to make a proper biscuit, not to mention a birthday cake. Sometimes I think the only hope for baking in this multitasking age is if Detroit starts installing ovens in cars.

America's remaining proud bakers may be few to none at the bake-off, but they can still be found duking it out at the state fairs this summer. You won't find any million-dollar prizes. Rather, contestants will vie for a ribbon, maybe a $25 grand prize, and the satisfaction that they are keeping alive a true-blue American tradition.

Amy Sutherland is author of 'Cookoff: Recipe Fever in America.' This article appeared first in the Los Angeles Times.

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