My sister bought me this book as one of my Christmas presents, and I probably wouldn't have stumbled upon it otherwise. I'd never even been aware of the existence of high-profile cooking contests and was fascinated to find out more, if only because I always like a good character-driven story brimming with self-discovery and all that other Oprah-type stuff. (Incidentally, Oprah herself figures into this particular tale. But I'll get to that later.)
Like any cook worth her salt (ha ha), Ellie doesn't start at the top. Before she sets foot into the Pillsbury's posh event room at a glam Orlando hotel, she, her mother, and her daughter find themselves in the Recreational Equipment Company's basement to determine which Seattle cook can rustle up the tastiest meal from a packet of freeze-dried camping food. It's a skill at which camping veteran Ellie happens to be adept, and all three generations of women end up going home with a prize. Her appetite whetted, Ellie decides to play for higher stakes by competing in the Washington state Beef Cook-Off. Ellie's dish is Siberian Beef, a tasty-sounding pot roast seasoned with tomatoes, apple cider vinegar, and sour cream. To her great surprise, she wins second place and learns that she missed first only because her sour cream curdled. Ellie, and in one case, her husband, also a retired software developer, keep the momentum going by entering a series of beef cook-off extravaganza-type events involving field trips to feed lots, rodeos, performances by cowboy poets, and - of course - steak dinners. And the pair of them not even self-professed carnivores!
All of these experiences prepare Ellie for the big enchilada of cooking contests, the hallowed Pillsbury Bake-Off, where - she'd heard - they treat you "like a queen." So, she knocks herself out experimenting with recipes before settling on a dozen to enter. The rules mandate that she use a certain amount of Pillsbury products. As a last thought, Ellie throws together something she calls Salsa Couscous Chicken. A variation on a recipe she clipped from the newspaper, it uses Old El Paso salsa (Old El Paso is a Pillsbury brand), has Eastern flavor, and is easy to prepare. Still, she doesn't have much faith in it. It seems ordinary to her, and she berates herself for not being able to come up with a snazzier name. In the book, the recipe isn't revealed until the last page. But I feel like revealing it now:
1 cup uncooked couscous or rice
1 tbs olive or vegetable oil
1/4 cup coarsely chopped almonds
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
8 chicken thighs, skin removed
1 cup Old El Paso Homestyle Garden Pepper or Thick n' Chunky Salsa
1/4 cup water
2 tbs dried currants or raisins
1 tbs honey
3/4 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1. Cook couscous in water as directed on package. Cover to keep warm.
2. Meanwhile, in a 10-inch skillet, heat olive oil over medium-high heat until hot. Cook almonds in oil 1 to 2 minutes, stirring frequently, until golden brown. With slotted spoon, remove almonds from skillet; set aside.
3. Add garlic to skillet; cook and stir 30 seconds. Add chicken; cook 4 to 5 minutes or until browned, turning once.
4. In a medium bowl, mix remaining ingredients. Add to the chicken; mix well. Reduce heat to medium; cover and cook about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until chicken is fork-tender and juices run clear. Stir in almonds. Serve chicken mixture with couscous.
I'm not going to go into a ton of detail about the Bake-Off. Ellie is chosen as a finalist. She travels to the competition, hosted by Alex Trebek, and enjoys all of the lavish parties and dinners promised by the Pillsbury people. And she wins. We know that; it's on the cover of the book. What I'm more interested in was the way she felt about it all.
Ellie goes to Orlando without her husband. Both of them are worried he may be bored, and they also don't want to spend the money. Being solo puts Ellie in an awkward position as the Pillsbury's myriad social events unravel. She doesn't know who to sit with at dinner, and the free day at Epcot presents problems all its own. Here's what she tells us:
"I didn't feel compelled to wring every last ounce out of what Epcot had to offer. My goal for the day was to have plenty of what I call "float time," when I don't have to answer to anyone, respond to anyone. I wanted to relax into my own thoughts and daydreams, accomplishing nothing tangible but everything grounding. I wanted the afternoon off, to excuse myself from the Bake-Off and all the social electricity that went with it. Epcot and the passivity of being its audience was the answer. So easy to slip into. So wonderfully anonymous." (Mathews 108)
Then, just a page or so later:
"Boarding the bus solo took me back to my grade-school days, that all too familiar schoolgirl awkwardness of choosing a place to sit while others chattered in pairs. I filed to the back. A few people put their hands palm down on empty seats, indicating that those were being saved for someone else. No matter. It had been my choice to go it alone." (Mathews 109-110)
I found this part of the book to be particularly striking. Ellie's decision to tour the park alone instead of finding a group to shoehorn herself into presents its own rewards and challenges, much like the contest she is destined to win. I don't have a whole lot in common with Ellie (she makes a point of mentioning that she and her husband rarely eat in restaurants and that she hates shopping and dressing up), but I felt like I understood her mindset at Epcot.
Of course, it isn't until Ellie wins that her challenges really begin. Whisked off for appearances on "The Rosie O' Donnell Show" and "Oprah" as well as for interviews with countless newspapers and magazines, she quickly realizes that few of the media giants are interested in her or even her recipe. For example, she doesn't want to talk about the prize money or what she's doing with it, but everyone asks anyway. (Human nature being what it is, I'm sure you want to know too. As Ellie finally started telling people, "I spent some, I saved some, I gave some away." The most notable of her purchases was a used truck.) Outfitted in Pillsbury-approved khakis, it's Ellie's duty to represent the company, and, in another sense, to provide the media circus with something new to chew on. Ellie says it best herself:
"What a relief to realize that article wasn't about me and how I actually look or dress. "Oprah" wasn't about me or my chicken either. It was about Oprah. And "Rosie" was about Rosie. The media needs material to fill its space and time slots. They need to borrow the rest of us and put us on their daily plates. Borrow our names, our accomplishments, our fifteen minutes of fame. We can choose to go along for the ride or not." (Mathews 268)
Ah, the old fame monster. Ellie is remarkably clear-headed in recognizing it for what it is. And she never turns on Pillsbury, who makes good on its word by awarding her her million-dollar prize in $50,000 a year increments as promised. She maintains that "It had been a fair exchange, and it was time for me to let go. And the best way to accomplish that was to think about the big, juicy prize the company had given me." (Mathews 238).
Ellie entered (and won) a few more cooking contests after her big victory. But these days she seems to be concentrating on her freelance writing career, as evidenced by this memoir created without the guiding hand of the ever ubiquitous "co-writer." According to the back cover, she won the Milkweed Prize for Children's Literature for The Linden Tree and wrote a tribute to her grandfather's 1913 scientific expedition to the Antarctic entitled Ambassador to the Penguins. Pretty impressive. Who knows what creative triumphs she'll cook up next?