Spring To-Do's

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Stage a Family Cooking Competition

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If television is any indicator, it appears the competitive spirit has spread from surviving obstacles to singing to cooking. Shows like "Cook-off America," "Top Chef," and "Iron Chef America" invite us to watch chefs battle to be the best. Even celebrated Southern cook Paula Deen and her sons recently hosted a friendly "Deen Family Cook-off" on her Food Network series "Paula's Home Cooking."

Cook-offs are an American concoction, says Amy Sutherland, author of Cookoff: Recipe Fever in America. Each year, contestants around the country enter cooking contests ranging from the famous Pillsbury Bake-Off to small-town firehouse chili competitions. "There's no other country that does it like us," says Sutherland. Competitive cooking began in the early 19th century as a way to attract the female demographic to state fairs. "They added cooking and horseback riding contests, and women turned out in droves," she says.

Here are some ideas to help stage your own all-American family cooking competition.

  • Decide how you want to compete. "There are two basic approaches," says Sutherland. "One is that you're executing the best of a dish, and the other is that you pick a category and the best overall dish wins." So whether everyone is striving to make the most decadent fudge or the least homely casserole, determine the format first.
  • Decide what to cook. Popular cook-off categories include: cookies, desserts, and chili, though kids would certainly appreciate a mac and cheese cook-off. Choose a convenient time and place -- such as a family reunion picnic or a holiday cookie bake-off party -- to allow for a fun and relaxing event with maximum attendance.
  • Set clear ground rules. "Even though it's family, there's something that happens to people when they get in a contest," cautions Sutherland. She suggests setting limits ahead of time on things such as whether to cook in advance or at the party, how long contestants have to finish, and what techniques or ingredients are off limits. Select judges in advance and "create score cards to judge appearance, texture, overall taste, and even creativity, depending on the kind of cook-off," says Sutherland.
  • Finally, have fun. "This isn't usually part of the judging, but people typically name their dish," says Sutherland. Her best tip for avoiding hard feelings? "Have a cookie contest so there's [sic] lots of cookies to eat and nobody will feel bad for too long," she says.

Here are more ideas to keep in mind for your family cooking competition.

  • Use wacky fonts and family photos to design flyers inviting (or challenging) family members to compete.

  • Pitch in for a fun prize for the winner, such as a gift certificate to a cooking store, a chef's hat, or gaudy "white elephant" trophy to be passed from winner to winner each year.

  • Have the kids design ribbons to be awarded for each dish.

  • Designate both children and family elders as judges to facilitate bonding between generations.

  • Provide containers for guests and contestants to bring home leftovers.


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