Hint: It’s not like The Great British Baking Show.
Sabotage, contestant meltdowns, shouting matches, searing criticism: If that’s your idea of national baking contests, you’ve seen them only on TV.
In real life, a baking contest isn’t like that at all. I know, because I was a finalist in the Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest in 2014. Pillsbury sent me to Nashville to compete with 99 other amateur bakers in the largest baking contest in the United States. The grand prize? A million dollars.
I had no idea what to expect. Would I be frantically racing to meet the deadline? Would another contestant sabotage my dish, à la the melting Baked Alaska scandal on The Great British Baking Show? Would the judges excoriate me for insufficient egg beating?
No, no, and no. Many national baking and cooking contests are really recipe contests, in which the sponsor lays out rules for qualifying ingredients and other criteria well ahead of competition time. Pillsbury had chosen my recipe months before the contest, and I got to practice it as often as I wished. At the two-day event, the mood was cheerful—like Disneyland for bakers. Second- and third-time contestants happily briefed us first-timers. At the competition itself, I wasn’t nervous at all, and I didn’t detect any anxiety among my fellow finalists. If anything, everyone was quite jovial. I turned in my prepared dish with plenty of time to spare and had a chance to chat with other finalists. Then I walked around the floor with a plate and sampled lots of yummy treats.
TV contest judges (hello, Gordon Ramsay!) are often heartless in their face-to-face criticism of contestants, but at the Pillsbury Bake-Off, the judges were sequestered. We never saw them, not even at the awards ceremony that evening, where the winners were named and the losers never learned just how badly they’d lost. Talk about good sportsmanship: Every time an award was announced, the place filled with rousing cheers and hearty applause—no tears in sight.
By now you’re probably saying, “But you’ve been to only one contest! How do you know what the others are like?” For my new book, Smart Cookies: How Home Cooks Became Finalists in the Pillsbury Bake-Off® Contest, I interviewed 27 former Bake-Off finalists, and many of them had competed in other contests as well. The atmosphere, they told me, was so collegial that they’d formed lifelong friendships. Beth Royals, who won Pillsbury’s million-dollar prize the year I competed, told me those friendships were her primary reason for entering the contests. Cathy Wiechert, a three-time Pillsbury Bake-Off finalist, was initially motivated by the prize money but was drawn back by the camaraderie. “Sometimes you watch the shows and you see people backstabbing,” she said. “It’s not really like that.”
Pillsbury recently announced that it has reduced the prize money and will choose only four finalists to compete in the next Bake-Off, not 100, as in its previous 47 contests. I’ll bet even those four competitors become chummy—unless, of course, the contest becomes another reality show, with sabotage, meltdowns, and lots of drama.
Mary Beth Protomastro is the author of Smart Cookies: How Home Cooks Became Finalists in the Pillsbury Bake-Off® Contest and a contributing copy editor at Real Simple.