In 1996, the Pillsbury Co. ramped up the excitement level of its 47-year-old Bake-Off by awarding $1 million to the grand-prize winner.
A million-dollar recipe is bound to grab attention, even if it's as simple as making a pie with granola bars or simmering chicken thighs in salsa.
In 1998, the winning Salsa Couscous Chicken sparked a run on Old El Paso salsa. Winner Ellie Mathews couldn't find any in her hometown of Seattle to demonstrate her recipe on local TV. The Pillsbury Co. had to ship her out a case.
Some recipes become classics, appearing in cookbooks and potlucks across America and on the Internet at Pillsbury.com. But what happened to their creators after the flurry of TV appearances and news stories died down?
The Deseret Morning News tracked down four past winners and asked how the Bake-Off changed their lives.
All four sounded surprisingly grounded. There were no over-the-top shopping sprees, yachts or wild bouts of gambling, possibly due to the way the prize is parceled out. The $1 million annuity is paid in $50,000-a-year installments. The winner can opt to take the cost of the annuity in a lump sum, which Ellie Mathews did. After her initial $50,000 check, she received a lump sum of $581,497 the following year. And of course, there are taxes.Even so, for one recipe, it adds up to a huge chunk of change.
Kurt Wait, of Redwood City, Calif., was the first million-dollar winner (in 1996) and the only male grand-prize winner, with his Macadamia Fudge Torte.
"It was one of the best days of my life," recalled the financial analyst in a telephone interview. "Anybody has to be surprised, because you only have one-in-a-hundred chance. Getting in the finals is the toughest part, because there are thousands of entries."
Wait said he still does a lot of cooking, adding, "I just cooked dinner tonight. But I don't do the gourmet stuff. And that's what the Bake-Off is doing, they're looking for what America really cooks. That makes a lot of sense."
Wait has dabbled in contests before and after the big win. In 1994, he won the grand prize in Sutter Home's Build a Better Burger contest, and in 2007 he won a $5,000 prize in the National Beef Cook-Off.
"I still compete a little bit, but I'm pretty busy with work," he said.
No, he didn't quit his day job. "A million dollars sounds like a lot, and it certainly made my life better, but it doesn't go far these days," he said. "I put some away for my boy's college and some for retirement and some on the house. I didn't overdo."
He often gets asked about his big win, especially when he's competing in other contests. "I don't make a big deal out of it. I don't think the other contestants are intimidated, but they ask a lot of questions," he said.
His advice: "I studied their books. Every year they come out with all the Bake-Off recipes. I looked at what had won in the past and used it as a guide for the future."
Also, "Write your recipe in logical order. A lot of recipes get thrown out because people don't follow the rules."
Pillsbury (now part of General Mills) pays for the contestant's trip and hotel stay and provides meals and entertainment. "If you get the chance to go, do it. You'll have a great time, even if you don't win."
Wait was the last winner before the contest changed to a quick-and-easy format that emphasize more convenience products. Also, the advent of online submissions has likely increased the number of entries, he noted."My chances of winning today would be slim to none, like everybody else," he said. "Also, it makes a difference who the judges are and what they like. If one of the judges hated chocolate that year, I wouldn't have won. It's all a lot of luck."
When Ellie Mathews' Salsa Couscous Chicken won the Bake-Off in 1998, reporters wrote that she appeared cool and calm. But actually, she was recovering from pneumonia and still a little dazed from her medication. She was also in shock, as she didn't expect to win.
Mathews, an author and illustrator, recounts her Bake-Off experience in a memoir, "The Ungarnished Truth" (Berkley, $23.95). The title plays on the fact that Mathews hadn't thought to specify a garnish when she submitted the recipe.
"I hadn't called for parsley or cilantro or a slice of citrus to dress it up," she wrote in her book, adding that when her dish was photographed at the contest, "the whole thing looked like police photography of an accident scene."
Mathews said she wrote the book because, even after 10 years, people still ask about it. "I hope my book will give someone confidence to say , 'If she can do it, I can do it.' We all have ideas, and it takes a certain kind of courage to put it out there."
Before Pillsbury, Mathews and her husband, Carl Youngmann, had each been finalists in the National Beef Cook-Off. She's entered a few contests since, winning the 2005 Sutter Home Build a Better Burger's alternative category.
"But it's all very hit and miss, because I'm doing other things. There are some people dedicated to sending in recipes. It's fun, but not my primary focus."
Mathews said she's "not any big deal in the kitchen. If you came unannounced, I'd be able to put a meal together and it would be good, but not beyond imagination."
Some of her Bake-Off experiments that never made the cut include canned baked beans in a dessert bar, a mashed potato pie, apple dumplings from canned biscuits and a salsa seafood creole. The Salsa Couscous Chicken was an afterthought, as a way to use up the half-jar of salsa left from making the creole dish.
"I just kept trying stuff," she said. "The recipes go through so many screenings, it's impossible to know what will make it through."
She said the prize money has added a "pleasant dimension" to her life, but there were no outrageous purchases.
"Silly and outrageous isn't really me. Winning the Bake-Off did not include a personality transplant," she said. "We've never been extravagant, or traveled in showy circles, but then $50,000 a year doesn't really put you in the category of dripping in diamonds or hiring butlers and maids."
With her first $50,000 check, Mathews put $10,000 each into accounts for her daughter and granddaughter (who was born the same day Mathews won the Bake-Off). She and her husband bought a three-year-old pickup truck for trips to their remote cabin that they already owned, and they planned to use the rest to drill a well at the cabin. But the well never got drilled and they ended up selling the property.
"Don't get me wrong. I love having the money. I love the security it gives me, the options," she said. "It represents that somebody thought I had a good idea. That a bunch of judges got together and said this is the one we liked the best."
Was it worth a million dollars? "I don't think there's any one recipe that would satisfy that kind of expectation. There's no such thing as a best recipe in the country in a given year. But the beauty of my recipe is that it's a very matter-of-fact, get-dinner-on-the-table thing."Mathews' literary honors and awards seem more personal to her. "That's closer to what I'm all about, something that I put my heart and soul into, unlike making a recipe, which can be somewhat trivialized."
"It's an obscene amount of money for a really simple recipe," admitted Suzanne Conrad, when asked about her Oats 'n Honey Granola Pie that won the Pillsbury Bake-Off in 2004.
In a telephone interview from her home in Findlay, Ohio, Conrad added, "I think it helped that it was simple, old-fashioned and has a different flavor. The granola bars are the only unique thing about the recipe."
Conrad crumbled granola bars (one of the sponsor products) into the filling with walnuts and chocolate chips.
"We didn't expect to win anything at all," said her husband, Mike. "Her pie tastes very good, but it was just this brown circle, compared with how all the other recipes looked. I read the bios on the judges, and a lot of them were involved with low-carb diets. I thought, they will take one look at this pie and put a crucifix up against it."
So when she won, "I was shell-shocked. We had to scramble to make sure our relatives could watch our children while we took off to New York," Suzanne said.
The instant media attention was overwhelming: unveiling a new pie crust on the "Today" show, two days of filming at her home for a Bravo! documentary, numerous radio and newspaper interviews and the cover of Woman's World magazine.
"It's pretty nerve-wracking when you're used to just wearing sweat pants to 'Gosh, I have to meet Oprah!' But it's all part of the fun of winning," she said.
In fact, Conrad said she can't think of a single downside.
"I don't think we let it go to our heads. The fact that it's almost like an annual salary makes a difference," said Conrad, who has a master's degree in library science. "When we moved here from Michigan, I left work to stay home with my children. It's a struggle to make it on one salary. Winning took the pressure off. It's like being paid to stay home."
Their big splurge is an annual vacation to Cape Cod.
"As a librarian, I never bought books, I checked them out. Now I can buy them," Conrad said. "And I send flowers to people more often. We've invested in our kids' college funds. My dad worked two jobs so that I could go to college. Now I can encourage my kids to shoot for the moon."
The Bake-Off was her first recipe contest. "Now I can't help but enter contests. It's almost like a compulsion," she said. "I can't do Pillsbury anymore, but I've tried every year with Southern Living (magazine's annual contest) and didn't get a nibble."
She did however, win $200 from Better Homes & Gardens.
She's become a bit of a local celebrity, judging an annual pie contest in town and making her pie for church auctions, the county fair and various community groups.
"Some of my librarian friends had me back to their libraries to talk about my experience," she said. "I never would have thought I'd want to get up in front of a crowd and talk, but if I encouraged even five people, that's great. I tell them, you've got to eat anyway. Just try something new. If it tastes good, write it down."She volunteers at a children's art museum, and recently bought a laptop computer so she could pursue her desire to write books. "One project is a children's book that involves a pie."
In amateur recipe-contest circles, there's an expectation that once you've won the "Big One," the Pillsbury Bake-Off, you can sit back and rest on your culinary laurels.
But not so for Anna Ginsberg of Austin, Texas, who won the 2006 Bake-Off for her Baked Chicken and Spinach Stuffing.
Since then, she's won $7,500 from Family Circle magazine for a chicken and pasta dish, and $5,000 in a Betty Crocker cookie contest. She was also a 2006 finalist in Cooking Light's Ultimate Reader Recipe Contest.
"So I'm still in the game," she said in a telephone interview from her home. "But winning the Bake-Off has taken some of the pressure off. I only enter contests I'm really interested in, and I share more recipes than keeping them secret. I'm becoming more of a cheerleader for competitive cooking as a hobby."
She's concerned that judges might recognize her name and count it against her, "but I'm still not a professional. I haven't suddenly gone to culinary school or anything. I worry about other contestants being jealous and saying that I shouldn't compete, but that's what I do."
That morning when Ginsberg answered her phone, she was experimenting with a small-scale batch of carrot cookies. She had made various versions, including some with prune baby food, and planned to report on them in her blog, Cookiemadness.net.
"It's been fun doing a blog. Through the Internet I've met people who are really obsessive about (baking), and we share ideas and recipes. I do a lot of baking. I eat a little and send the rest to my husband's office."
The stay-at-home mom, who has a communications degree, was also a Bake-Off finalist in 2004. She entered at least 50 recipes both years. "The more ideas you have, the better. It's worth entering them all because you never know what they will pick," she said.
Judges picked Ginsberg's idea of making stuffing from Pillsbury Dunkables frozen waffle sticks and using the accompanying syrup in a glaze for chicken.
"There are people who want to trash me for using waffle sticks," she noted. "But if I were a songwriter, I wouldn't expect everyone to like every song."
The night she created it, she thought she had a winner after the first bite. "But when I got to the Bake-Off and saw the competition, I didn't think so."
Two days later, she was preparing it for Katie Couric on TV.
Ginsberg reads magazines such as Bon Appetite, Cooking Light, Gourmet, and Food and Wine.
"You get ideas of what top chefs are doing and then kick them down a notch and make them easier," she said. "You don't want to do something that everyone else is doing, but just a simple twist on something. Once you get the hang of it, it's easier, which is why certain people win over and over."6 comments on this story
Some of the prize money has gone for family trips and her young daughter's college fund."And I've put some of it into ingredients, because I do a lot of cooking. Right now, it's a safety net. If my car breaks down, I know I can fix it. It's given me peace of mind."