Many opportunities on P.E.I. to square off in smaller culinary competitions
Cooking has become a sporting event on television. Contestants, professional and amateur, young and old, compete for the honour and the payoff of achieving top place. In order to win, they must be competent, creative and quick.
This isn’t a bad thing. While many experienced cooks find cooking relaxing and find no appeal in watching others scramble to prepare the best dish in the allotted time with the ingredients provided, exposure to culinary competition and showmanship has sparked interest in those who might otherwise have considered it a little tedious.
Once they’re interested, they find their way into their own kitchens and practise the skills that they’ve observed while watching cooking shows. Anything that inspires people to cook for themselves is a step towards self-reliance and, potentially, good health.
Televised cooking competitions are just about as old as TV itself. Finals for the Pillsbury Bake-Off, initiated in 1949, piqued my interest long before there were entire networks devoted to food.
Teams of professional chefs, including students at the Culinary Institute of Canada, train for months prior to prestigious international competitions, perfecting techniques and selecting recipes that will set them apart from the rest.
Of course, cooking and recipe competitions are not confined to the high-stakes world of television and professional chefs. Friendly competitions with more modest prize offerings are firmly entrenched in P.E.I. culture. For example, P.E.I. Women’s Institutes have long sponsored food competitions at the Provincial Exhibition and recently organized Island Product Cooking Contests for youth in Grades 7 to 12.
Fairs and exhibitions in communities across our province and, indeed, across the country, provide venues for rating people’s cooking skills. Anyone with an interest can, if they meet the event deadlines, submit items in the competitions. It’s not all or nothing; people enter in as few or as many classes as they wish. Traditionally, exhibitors have taken pride in finding prize ribbons on their entries.
My interest in fairs stems from my mother’s frequent success as an entrant in the foods competitions at a number of country fairs.
Food categories included in fair prize lists are confined to items such as baked goods and pickles which will hold up reasonably well over the course of the event. Most prize lists include tea biscuits, several types of homemade bread, muffins, cookies, cakes and pies, to show a range of skills. As an example, you might find a class for white and multigrain bread and whole wheat rolls on a prize list. You can imagine how full a judge feels after a day of tasting just a tiny sliver of all the entries in these classes.
With the exception of a few classes, bakers use their own recipes, although prize lists make certain stipulations to ensure standardization that will make judging more fair, such as “no icing”, or –for pies – the size of the pie plate to be used.
Last weekend, at Crapaud Exhibition, I was remind` ed that even though baked items are not in the heavy rotation
they once were in Island homes, there is still plenty of enthusiasm for home-baking competitions. Entries in the special class for blueberry pie filled an entire table, as usual, and bidding wars broke out when the top three were offered in auction.
This year Crapaud organizers also offered a special prize for walnut cake, with a note about its historical significance as special-occasion cakes that could be made with ingredients more accessible and less expensive than those required for fruit cakes.
Unlike most classes, in which entrants use their own recipes, those entering this class were given a standard recipe to follow. The variations in appearance of these cakes (differences in size of walnut pieces, surface colour, volume and shape) showed how individuals put their own spin on things, even when following the same recipe.
Cooking competitions are not for everyone, but for those who choose to participate and for interested spectators, they are educational and fun. They broaden horizons, providing exposure to dishes, ingredients and techniques that we may be unfamiliar with, and increase awareness of the qualities that make food look and taste good.
When that happens, it can elevate the quality of the food that’s served every day and on the most special of occasions.