The first modern bake-off?

Here in the UK we are well used to the idea of baking to win. We have a long and proud history of village fetes and county shows, all of which have a huge array of competitions: largest vegetable; prettiest cow; best flower arrangement – and, of course, winning cake. Australia, Canada and the States have their own versions too, but what seems to be peculiarly North American is the ‘bake off’: a competition whereby entrants bake side by side to impress the judges. Of course we are all intimately familiar with the idea this side of the pond too now, what with our addiction to the annual Great British Bake-Off. But the Americans got there decades before us, and have been celebrating this time-pressured nerves-of-steel style of contest ever since.

The best known baking competition is the Pillsbury Bake-Off which was first held in 1949 at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York under the banner of the ‘Grand National Recipe and Baking Contest’. 32 million entry forms were handed out, and 200 of the best and most interesting recipes sent in were selected for baking in the test kitchen. The entrants of the 100 most impressive were then invited to come and bake-off for a top prize of $50,000 (presented by Eleanor Roosevelt) and a considerable amount of publicity and feting. The winner in that first year was Mrs Theadora Smafield, whose entry was for ‘No-knead water rising twists’, but third prize went to Mrs Richard W Sprague of San Marino, California, who baked her Aunt Carrie’s Bonbon Cake with chocolate frosting.

The contest was designed to boost flagging sales of Pillsbury flour, which, like other flour companies, was suffering from the reduction in bread-eating after the Second World War. The company had no idea how much their competition would tap into women’s imagination; an allure historian Laura Shapiro puts down to the lack of glamour and external approval in the lives of many housewives (many of whom had recently gone back into full-time housekeeping after working during the war). Each entry had to contain at least half a cup of Pilsbury’s Best Flour, but other than that, the competition was open to any type of baking, sweet or savoury (cake mixes, however, were NOT approved, although they were separately a lucrative form of income for the Pillsbury company). To date there has only been one male winner, in 1996, when Kurt Wait baked a Macadamia Fudge Torte.

I find the idea of the bake-off interesting because of what it shows about home baking both then and now. At the time that it was launched housewives were being inundated with adverts and articles proclaiming the merits of new convenience foods, all of which insisted that what women were short of was time and know-how in the kitchen. The success of the competition blew that out of the water. And the same seems to be true now, even in the UK, where there is no history of competitive side-by-side baking: making a cake – even for judging – has until now always been something that happened in the privacy of the home. Baking in a public place, in a strange oven, and to a set time, is a very different business; no wonder that the contestants haunt the glass doors of their ovens, and bite their nails anxiously as their portable oven timers count down the minutes.

However, the winning entries in the Pillsbury competition also do something more: they demonstrate not only the enduring popularity of cake in women’s repertoires, but that they can express the pinnacle of their baking skill. For Mrs Richard Sprague and Mr Kurt Wait alike, a cake was not just something for family; it was baked to impress.

You can find a lot of the winning recipes in this competition at the Pillsbury website. My interest was piqued sufficiently that I have one of them cooling downstairs as I type. I will report back on whether it convinces my guests as much as it did the Pillsbury judges…

[1] Laura Shapiro, Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America


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