The Great Neighborhood Cook-off
By Gail Belsky
It’s time for the annual block party, and you know what that means: burgers and dogs, brownies and ice pops, coolers of beer and juice boxes. Every family kicks in money and donates a dish, and everyone helps with the setup and cleanup. But instead of collaboration, maybe your block is ready for some friendly competition this year -- in the form of a neighborhood cook-off.
For three years, Kelly Lougee-Ordner and her neighbors in Spokane, Wash., have vied for the coveted Deanna Court Golden Baster Award at their annual cul-de-sac party. The theme for the first two cook-offs was basic barbecue, with the chefs hauling their grills out into the cul-de-sac and competing face-to-face. Friends were welcome, but only neighbors got to compete. This year, the Deanna Court residents are upping the ante with New Orleans-style cuisine, and as always, they’re preparing to go all out.
Cooking competitions are nothing new. Many an apple pie has sat out on the table awaiting judgment at the county fair. The longest-running cook-off, the National Chicken Cooking Contest, began in 1949 at the Delmarva Poultry Festival. The grand prize was $10,000. Today, it’s $50,000. But in recent years, the phenomenon has moved from fairgrounds to front lawns.
“It’s been around for a long time, being a competitive cook,” says Amy Sutherland, author of Cookoff: Recipe Fever in America (Penguin Group 2004). “The modern twist of that is seeing the professionals compete on TV. We just like to have fun with food, and it naturally becomes an issue of competition and entertainment.”
In order to keep it fun, Sutherland recommends the following steps:
Spell it out Set parameters and state them clearly: ingredients allowed, time allotted, amount to cook. Chefs -- and judges -- should have no doubt about the drill.
Set a time limit Be militant about this one. Someone is always going to try to push the envelope, but fairness is key to cook-off success.
Expand the menu Don’t focus only on the food. Give contestants a few different ways to win. Judge on presentation, creativity and greatest effort, and spread the joy around.
Make it funny Lighten it up with some goofy criteria: worst presentation, biggest mess, most utensils used. They remind people not to get too serious. As fun as a cooking competition is, the competitors have a lot at stake. “Their reputation is on the line,” says Sutherland.
Dress it up Make sure there’s a show component to the day, whether it’s part of the competition or just for fun. Have everyone wear a costume, decorate their tables and put on a performance. Or bring back the spirit of collaboration and plan the festivities together like the Deanna Court crowd does.
“We decorate the cul-de-sac with flags, tiki torches and a tiki bar with a grass, hut-like covering,” says Lougee-Ordner. “Our neighbor who spearheads the event designs an apron and spray paints the baster gold. We haul out everyone’s patio furniture to be able to have enough table and chairs for everyone to enjoy!”
Gail Belsky has worked on a variety of women’s publications, including Parents, Working Mother and All You, and she recently wrote a book for women, entitled The List: 100 Ways to Shake Up Your Life (Seal Press 2008). She is the managing editor of Ideas That Spark.