The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - THE ISLAND - Mar­garet Prouse

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.

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