When I find out that my best friend is one of the finalists in the 40th Annual "Quick and Easy" Pillsbury Bake-Off, I scream with joy. But it isn't long before I start to have odd, troubling feelings of foreboding about the whole event. I become seized with the notion that, like so many things I used to think of as gentle and innocent, there must be a dark and corrupt underbelly to this event.
I begin to think that the bake-off is just the sort of allegedly wholesome slice of Americana where money and influence, and perhaps even the trading of sexual favors, matters much more than the deliciousness of one's Easy One Pot Cheeseburger Pie. I imagine that the prize money inspires the kind of competitiveness that is vicious and ugly and usually springs from unfulfilled sexual desire. Why should the bake-off be free from the kind of judge badgering, influence peddling and knee-whacking that has tarnished the reputation of figure skating?
Instantly, this notion colors my view of the contest. I look at the Pillsbury doughboy on a commercial and I start thinking unsavory sexual thoughts. Whenever that human hand, for example, comes into frame and pushes his doughy center -- exactly where his yeasty genitalia would be if he had any -- I think about sex, and how unscrupulous people use it to get what they want.
In doing a little research, I discover that Pillsbury is not blind to the sexual aspects of the Doughboy. When the doughboy character was first conceived, they had a wife for him. Her name was Poppy and she had a little apron that covered her featureless white torso. The idea was that the Doughboy and his wife would give you the homey, happy domestic feeling that comes with the scent of rising, warm, freshly baked bread, no matter how nutritionally vacuous and preservative ridden that bread may be.
However, market research proved that the Doughboy's wife was a complete consumer disaster. Apparently women, Pillsbury's target customers, didn't like the idea that the doughboy was "attached." They responded to his squeal of glee as he is palpated by the anonymous feminine hand far more enthusiastically knowing that the doughboy was, in fact, "available."
Despite my foreboding, I decide to attend the Orlando, Fla., bake-off as entourage for my friend and sometimes writing partner Pam Norris, who is competing with 99 other contestants for a million dollars. To have access to this glittering event, I obtain press credentials from a small paper on Cape Cod, the Sippewisset Sentinel, a daily that in the summer devotes its pages to a rah rah boosterism of the glories of life on the upper Cape, and in the winter concentrates, Sinclair Lewis-like, on unsavory battles over septic tanks and sewerage and the plume of toxic gunk that floats beneath the surface of many of the elegant summer homes. I do not tell the Sippewisset Sentinel that my "angle" on the story is discovering the murky undercurrent of dark sexuality and sleazy corruption that I believe is the toxic plume that floats beneath the surface of the allegedly squeaky clean Pillsbury Bake-Off.
I have no proof that this undercurrent exists. However, the press badge around my neck has emboldened me to try to be the first reporter to crack the story -- crack it as I might crack open a can of Pillsbury's famous and inedible refrigerator biscuits.
My friend Pam is an Emmy-nominated writer of hit shows like "Saturday Night Live" and "Designing Women." Despite her success in show business, Pam remains dedicated to living her life as if it is the world's longest running production of "You Can't Take It With You." She is always launching into unusual, obsessive projects; successfully entering the bake-off is only the latest.
On its surface it seems like the bake-off has potential for fairness. After all, the approximately 10,000 entries are screened with no names, no résumés, no recommendations. It is, allegedly, a true meritocracy. Anyone who can combine name brand products like Green Giant niblets, Old El Paso Salsa and Grands! canned bread dough into anything resembling palatable food is eligible.
If this contest truly is fair, Pam will win. This is, after all, the "Quick and Easy" Pillsbury Bake-Off, and her recipe is nothing if not quick and easy. In fact, as she has told everyone, it takes 10 minutes to make, and five of those are spent drinking Chardonnay and watching the water boil. It is impossible to screw up. You can't overcook it and really the only thing that could go wrong is if you drop the pan and spill it all over the floor, and even then, depending on the condition of your kitchen floor, it could still taste great.
In addition to her recipe being quick and easy, it also has the lowest fat and sodium content in the category in which it is entered, the newly created "Lighter and Luscious Main and Side Dishes" category. This is the category that some of the old hands at the bake-off are handicapping to be the winning category, unlike the usual gooey desserts that take the million-dollar prize. I know why the desserts always win. The desserts win because desserts are sexy, and repressed ambition and sexual desire are obviously what lurk behind this bake-off in the first place.
Before Pam and I even left for Orlando, I had an inkling of the darkly competitive nature of the mostly female contestants. Pam joined a tight Internet chat circle of bake-off finalists, all of whom were Sally Fields-like in their giddiness. There is something about the nature of women as they compete that demands that they pretend not to be competitive at all. Beauty pageant contestants are forever proclaiming that they are "just happy to be here" and are hoping that the other, more deserving girls will win.
Men don't do this. You never hear Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield shyly proclaiming that they are "Just excited to be included in the fight." No, they explain that they will kick each others' asses, which is surely what these women are really thinking.
I get some proof of this when Pam announces to her chat circle that she is one of three entrants who will be featured with a color photograph and a perky Q&A in the front of the contest cookbook. As she announces this to her cooking chums, she is greeted with the electronic equivalent of sorority house squeals of congratulations. However, later in the day she is accidentally blind copied with a vicious screed of correspondence from the other women wondering, "What's so great about her? Who does she know?"
Pam politely responded to all to the catty e-mail from her tight circle, shyly wondering if she was supposed to be copied on it. Her inquiry was met with shocked silence. In the bitchy round of e-mail that was mistakenly sent her, her baking sorority sisters had concluded that Pam was selected to be featured because she was from California, which has more grocery stores than any other state. Which may in fact be the reason.
Once at the bake-off, I am constantly reminding myself of my commitment to put prejudice aside and remain fair and impartial toward all the other contestants. There is, however, one contestant who is severely trying my impartiality, mostly because she is just such a bitch. I call her "Iowa" because that's where she's from. "Iowa" is a dessert maker, and she lists her occupation as "self-employed screenwriter," (something, as Pam points out, which is very similar to being a self-employed supermodel, "What, I hang around my house all day and try on clothes, I'm a supermodel!"). This makes me defensive of my friend Pam, who is a real screenwriter, who actually gets paid by people other than herself.
In Orlando, I am staying at the Hard Rock Hotel, which is directly across the street from the Portofino Hotel, where all the official bake-off activities will take place. The Hard Rock is built around the theme that you, the guest, are a drug-crazed rock star who only emerges from your narcotic haze to have wild monkey sex with groupies before, during and after your big show. Even though most of the people staying at the hotel are pallid, shy Midwesterners, any one of whom could be a naked body double for the Doughboy should he ever need such a thing, they are treated by the spiky-haired hotel staff like Keith Richards on a bender.
After checking into the hotel, I head over to the Portofino and hang around the pool, hoping to get bake-off dirt from the contestants who are sunning and drinking margaritas on the fake "beach" that the cement-filled swamp of Orlando is unable to provide. I am amply rewarded when I overhear a conversation between two of the participants talking about exactly the kind of cut-throat attitude I'm looking to unearth. The two women, who are drinking margaritas in the hot tub, describe how someone put threatening notes under the hotel room doors of the other contestants a few years back.
These women are returning finalists, and one of them is a legacy, because her mother had also been a finalist. There is a disturbing number of these people in the contest. The rules, which are designed to discourage legacies, state that a person can only be a finalist three times, and after the third time, not only can they never return, but no one they are related to by blood or marriage can ever attempt to enter again.
As a result of this rule, ersatz "bake-off dynasties" are formed where each successive generation of the family becomes finalists two times, but no more, then passing the lore and wisdom of their bake-off secrets (Use the ingredients made by newly acquired corporate acquisitions of the parent company! Ethnic is in! Always refer to Velveeta as cheese!) to the next generation.
As a result of this practice, there are two 11-year-old finalists (11 being the youngest age allowed) in this year's competition. One of the 11-year-olds is actually competing against her own father, who apparently has yet to use up his precious two entries. This leads to a lot of speculation around the pool as to what are the odds of these little kids actually having developed the recipes themselves. Surely, if they are so brilliant as to have created prizewinning recipes, these children really ought to be turning their savant-like aptitude for kitchen chemistry toward advanced medical research or some such. As one embittered contestant hisses, "Yeah, sure, the kid came up with the recipe by herself. Jesus Christ, why don't they just send the family parakeet next time!"
The bake-off starts with a 6:30 a.m. Dixieland jazz breakfast. As I enter the grand ballroom, I am greeted by a frolicking human-sized doughboy who is available for photo ops with the guests. Pam's husband wants to take a picture of Pam and me with the doughboy, and so we are gathered up in his pristine white plastic arms. As he clutches us to his snowy chest and the picture is taken, I feel a strange brushing sensation on the back of my dress. If I am not mistaken, the doughboy is ineffectively attempting to grab my butt with his clumsy fingerless hands. I could be wrong of course, but it certainly feels like this Doughboy is coming on to me.
Marie Osmond, who will be the MC for the live broadcast, is introduced to the gathered contestants. She seems like a fun girl, who begins the day by messing with everyone's heads by getting them to look under the tablecloths for prizes that don't exist. The contestants laugh politely but seem annoyed. I have learned that there is nothing like a million dollars to take away people's sense of humor.
After breakfast the women contestants gather in the ladies' room to primp and enlarge their hairdos for the "Grand March" onto the competition floor. The place is thick with a kind of feline competitiveness. Minutes later, the march into the room of 100 ovens proceeds, improbably, to the strains of a techno-pop version of "La Vida Loca."
George and Sally Pillsbury, a waspy and elegantly handsome older couple who seem far more Pepperidge Farm than Pillsbury, take the stage. With the air of dignified royalty, they declare the bake-off festivities officially begun.
As an event, the actual bake-off is as breathtaking as the simultaneous opening of hundreds of cans and the whacking of hundreds of tinned dough containers would be. Since each contestant is expected to prepare their recipe three times, the event is due to last for three hours.
I decide that since I cannot possibly interview all the contestants, and since I have worn a low-cut slinky dress, I will focus my attention on the 10 male contestants in an effort to get one of them to spill the scandal I am searching for. After some misses, I finally hit it off with a contestant who ultimately becomes my Deep Throat. "Cupcakes" I call him, since that's what he's making. Right away he remarks that I am the only journalist who has used profanity with him. Since I swear like a longshoreman on most, if not all occasions, it comes as a surprise to me that the working press is apparently not supposed to "work blue."
Nevertheless, Cupcakes agrees to meet me for a more extensive interview "after all this is over." I am sure that this will finally lead to the big story. I can hardly wait, but will have to as the bake-off crawls on.
There is a minor flurry of excitement as Pam is the first contestant to finish her entry and hand it off to the judges. Marie Osmond finds this significant and hauls the camera crew over to do an interview with Pam. Pam, high on frozen broccoli and adrenaline, grabs Marie and shouts confidently into the camera that she's, "gonna take this thing with broccoli!" Later, during the live daytime CBS broadcast that must have thrilled many ones of viewers and enraged millions of soap opera junkies, it is this line that gets the biggest laugh of the show.
As the contest moves on with the kind of fast-paced excitement usually only found in beach erosion, the other journalists begin trying to stir things up. Stacey Sweet from "Inside Edition," who seems like an incredibly game girl, tries to create a rivalry between Pam and the oldest living contestant in the competition. Stacey aggressively tries to get Pam and the Grandma to talk smack about each other: Since they are both using broccoli, Stacey figures this a natural for a Tanya/Nancy feud. However, both women graciously back away from the obvious catfight that Stacey is attempting to whip up.
At some point Sally Pillsbury, who might be the coolest person at this event, comes over to Pam and congratulates her on finishing first. Sally is the kind of fantastic old lady I have always wanted to become. Loaded and elegant, she has the raspy voice and wry manner that leads me to believe that she knows how to kick back and have a good time. As Pam heads off to do yet another interview, Sally remarks, "There goes our girl." By now, I am convinced that Pam "Quick and Easy" Norris will be the million-dollar winner, will be our girl.
Finally, after an ice age, the contest is over. Everyone stumbles out into the sunshine and off to the buffet lunch, then onto more petulant recrimination poolside and ultimately to the big blow-out party at the Hard Rock Live! nightclub, which is adjacent to my hotel.
At the Hard Rock Live!, the contestants prove to be a hard-partying bunch. Fueled with free Pillsbury booze, they dance to the live cover band and eventually take over the stage so aggressively that Hard Rock Live! bouncers move to the front of the stage to prevent any further encroachment. Back at my table, I notice that someone has placed two tiny doughboys in a compromising position next to my glass of Merlot. The doughboys seem to be passionately sandwiched together, clutching each other with animalistic fervor, their little white legs eagerly entwined and their lips pressed in a needy kiss. This horrifying image of floury fornication is beyond disturbing and yet hauntingly beautiful.
The next morning, all the contestants gather nervously outside the ballroom, which has been reset for the live broadcast with the same fakey steel scaffolding and searing laser lighting of the "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?" set.
Just before the broadcast, "Iowa" -- a three-time finalist -- is hustled over to an interview area by the film crew from the Food Network. The other contestants glumly watch and try their best not to act cruelly disappointed when, post-interview, she high fives her husband and children. It is obvious to everyone that Iowa is the big winner, and this has been leaked to certain members of the press. I do not like Iowa. When I interviewed her earlier, she demonstrated no feelings of guilt that, as a three-timer, she was making it impossible for anyone in her marital or DNA pool to ever be a contestant. I decide that if she does win, I will subsequently leak the rumor that Iowa is, in fact, a post-op tranny.
The live, half-hour broadcast begins, and Marie Osmond handles it like a pro. When she is given the wrong information and announces on live TV that one of the $10,000 semi-finalists is a single mom -- she's in fact a working mom -- she easily covers by making a joke that the finalist's husband was frightened that now that his wife has won big money, she is going to want a divorce.
Ironically, it is this same working mom who ultimately wins the million dollars with her "Chicken Florentine Panini." The Chicken Florentine Panini falls under the "Luscious and Lighter" category. After the broadcast, other contestants tell me they're shocked. In all the handicapping I have heard, no one thought this chicken girl was the favorite. Although what she made is tasty enough, it is basically just a chicken sandwich that takes 12 ingredients and 35 minutes to prepare because you have to make your own bread. Furthermore, you have to use heavy iron skillets as sort of a jury-rigged bread press. The sight of this woman whomping on bread dough with iron skillets was hardly anyone's idea of quick and easy. It is a sandwich I could make in five minutes if I went to the store and spent two bucks on readymade (and way tastier) panini, and I wouldn't have to whack anything with a frying pan to do it.
I meet Cupcakes in the lobby of the hotel. During the contest he was wearing a festive red, white and blue sport shirt, but now he is slouching in a camouflage jacket in the corner. Still, he seems excited as I approach, perhaps too excited. He eagerly informs me that since this is his third time at the contest and he can never compete again, he is willing to spill all the dark bake-off secrets from what he refers to as "his three assaults on B-Day."
Now that we are off the glare of the oven floor, I begin to worry that this guy is wrapped a little too tight. He begins spinning wild tales of craven backroom dealings and "sex for prize money" intrigues that are exactly the sort of sleazy tales I signed on for. He invites me to come back to his room, to look at his "files" -- the evidence he has assembled that will blow this bake-off wide open. I hesitate, because the more he talks, the more Cupcakes seems, well, the only term for it is half-baked. But as a hard-bitten journalist, what can I do but follow Cupcakes and the story?
I go to his room. Sure enough he has files. Files on the winners of the bake-off for every year since it became a million-dollar contest. Cupcakes, like most of the male contestants, had no interest in the contest until it went from $50,000 in prize money to $1 million. He was enticed to become a participant when the first winner of the million bucks happened to be a man, the first male winner in the contest's 53-year history.
He tells me that he has proof that every million-dollar winner of this contest has been a bribe or a fix-up. It's all in his files. I eagerly open the file folder on the first million-dollar winner, all I find is pictures after picture of what appears to be a chocolatey dessert.
"There's your proof!" Cupcakes exclaims.
"I, um, I'm not sure I see what exactly you mean."
"Look at that cake, I mean look at it!" he says. I look, desperately trying to see the clue and thus break my big story. "That's supposed to be a frigging torte! With streusel topping? What kind of a frigging torte has streusel topping? If it has streusel topping, well that's nothing but a goddamn coffee cake, that's nothing but a rehash of what Mrs. Carl DeDominicis did back in '72 with her Streusel Spice Cake, or the Pennsylvania Dutch Cake and Custard Pie that Gladys Fulton won with in '92, I mean, really, what's the difference between that cake and the Blueberry Poppy Seed Brunch cake from '90? That cake is nothing but a goddamned chocolate version of a Blueberry Poppy Seed Brunch cake, and all of a sudden that's worth a million bucks? You tell me that wasn't rigged!"
Oh, how I would love to tell Cupcakes that it was all so obviously rigged. I would love to tell him that deals were cut, that money changed hands, that sexual favors were offered up in order to turn streusel into gold. But except for the two fornicating stuffed doughboys on the table at the Hard Rock, it appears that there is, in fact, no sex at the Pillsbury Bake-Off.
And no provable scandal either. Because my friend Pam's obviously brilliant broccoli couscous was so egregiously overlooked I, like Cupcakes, wanted to believe that the contest is as rotten as a can of Old El Paso Salsa two months past its expiration date. Still, I had no proof. All I had was the bad taste in my mouth that has always accompanied the eating of Pillsbury's over-processed foods, no matter how lovingly prepared. Deep in my heart, I believe that this contest is unfair. I believe it to be unfair, because my friend Pam didn't win. If she'd won, well, that would be a different story.