Limoncello and Sour Cream

In Ballroom D, carpeted and windowless, all the chairs face five kitchenettes. Mirrors above each cooking station reflect the mise-en-place: a range topped with a pot or skillet, stacked mixing bowls, knives in a row. On one, canned mandarin oranges. On all, cardboard cartons emblazed with the letters HOOD. Girls in toques and checkered chef pants set ingredients on the tables while audience members filter in, holding blue grocery bags and munching on pizza. Behind each table, an apron-clad contestant waits. The five competitors are here to cook, and one will win $10,000.

“Hey,” co-host Chef Rick interrupts the Hood® brand manager who is explaining the rules of the event, “when the winner takes the check outta here, how’s he gonna fit it in the ATM machine?”

“Well,” comes the response, “it’s gotta be a big bank!”

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The contestants are competing in the Fourth Annual Hood® Dairy Cook-Off, a New England-wide cooking contest hosted by dairy manufacturer and distributor HP Hood LCC. Amateur cooks have one hour to prepare an original recipe and present it to panel of judges who will select the grand prize winner. All recipes must contain one of Hood®’s products—in most cases, some combination of heavy cream, sour cream, buttermilk, or cottage cheese.

The live competition has been going on all day, and the names displayed at each station represent the five recipes and their cooks that have made it to the final round: Jean Dziedzinski, Late Summer Layered Crustless Quiche; Kevin Towle, Heaven and Hell Chowder; Forrest White, Acorn Squash ‘n Blossom Fritter with a Vichyssoise Shooter; William Gillard, Ocean Bounty Creamery; Mary Jo Fletcher LaRocco, Cranberry Limoncello Tarts in a Gingersnap Hazelnut Crust.

It is, as host and New England TV/radio personality Billy Costa affirms, “a pretty swanky place.” After three years in Portland, ME, the Cook-Off has, celebrating its New England scope, chosen Providence as the next location, and the contest is taking advantage of the city’s culinary disposition: Johnson and Wales students have vetted the hundreds of recipes to choose the thirty semifinalists; at the judges table sit one former and one current faculty member, plus a JWU alumna; and the girls in toques are JWU culinary students. Making a nod to the mall just adjacent to the Convention Center, Billy pronounces Providence “the perfect location for this event.”

The emphasis is on New England, on old family recipes, on seasonal ingredients like cranberry and squash. But beyond Johnson and Wales’s participation, signs of Providence’s generally assertive local food scene are absent. No food trucks offer sliders or cupcakes outside the convention center. The bloggers at the press table aren’t looking to capture mouthwatering close-ups; they run mothering blogs, on couponing and cooking with kids.

As the camera crew sets up in anticipation of the competition’s launch, Billy assures the crowd that the Patriots were winning when last he checked. Everyone seems relieved.

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A cowbell rings. The cook-off has begun!

It is a nudge, not an explosion. The contestants have an hour to complete their dishes before presenting to the judges, but they are opening their Tupperwares slowly. William, a contestant from Maine, leans back on his heels and looks about idly. Billy ambles up to Forrest’s table, where the Vermonter proudly announces his dish.

“Ah, vichyssoise,” echoes Billy. “Don’t you just love saying that? Vichyssoise.”

Forrest emphatically identifies the acorn squash, potatoes, and leeks as Vermont products, but Billy wants to know what the Hood® products are (cream, both sour and heavy).

Hood®, which began as a Boston-based dairy distributor before expanding to production at farms around New England, now comprises twelve brands including Brigham’s and Heluva Good dips, as well as processing and selling rights to such labels as LACTAID®, BAILEYS® Coffee Creamers, HERSHEY®S Milk & Milkshakes, and Almond Breeze® Almondmilk. As for the products that actually boast Hood® in red and white, there are over thirty-five of them—low-calorie, reduced-fat, and flavor varieties included.

Strips of bacon appear in the mirror above Forrest’s station. Down the line, Jean’s bacon is already sizzling.

“Let’s have a big round of applause for bacon,” calls out Billy. “Am I right?” The crowd agrees that he is probably right. Chef Rick thinks we need smellovision.

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Fifty minutes to go. A stick of butter is in William’s pan, but the heat does not seem to be on.

Billy sidles up to the next table, where the contestant from North Kingstown is moving at a considerably faster pace than her neighbor.

“What are you making, there, Mary Jo?”

Mary Jo swats the host’s hand away from the cookies she is pouring into a food processor. “It’s written right there on the sign!” This is Mary Jo’s fourth cook-off. Her recipes have consistently gotten her to the semifinals but she has never won the grand prize, and tonight there is a level of urgent professionalism at her table that doesn’t match William’s casual can-opening or the cheery vegetable-patterned plates Forrest will serve zucchini fritters on. The food processor begins to whir.

Billy shifts to read the sign, speaking over the machine’s buzz. “Ah, gingersnap crust! Don’t you love gingersnap? I love gingersnap.”

The smell of bacon reaches Billy from the other side of the room. “Bacon smells good.”

It is summarily agreed upon that bacon is amazing.

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Forty minutes to go. William’s butter has melted.

“His butter isn’t sizzling.” The woman on my right is referring to the stick of butter idling in William’s skillet, and in fact, the scallops seem to be resisting browning. The women next to me are not here to support a particular competitor. They, like many of the spectators—mostly middle-aged women with their husbands or children or both—have come simply to watch and cheer on fellow home cooks. No one seems particularly miffed that all that is visible from the audience are preparations reflected upside down.

Other audience members are semifinalists who stayed to watch after having been eliminated during the morning’s semifinals. The rest are family and friends. Mary Jo’s son Dante watches from the second row, and she looks over at him in between bustling to and fro. When Billy tries to give him a little airtime, the boy buries his face in his dad’s sleeve.

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Twenty-five minutes to go. The judges are hungry, which shouldn’t be a problem for the one on Weight Watchers. She has saved all her points for tonight. Accompanying the Johnson and Wales affiliates are the Hood® VP of Quality Systems & Regulatory Affairs, and the creator of the local food site Eat, Drink RI. The five judges will grant points based on taste, creativity, and presentation. Mary Jo’s tart shells have come out of the oven to exclamations from the panel, and another appliance is whirring.

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Thirteen minutes to go. William is ready.

Which is fine, even though there is still time on the clock. There will be no throwing down of utensils at the clanging of the cowbell, for Ballroom D is no Kitchen Stadium. They are not professional chefs, after all, and the competition feels like a block party pie contest or a dog show. Regional cooking competitions came long before shows like Iron Chef and Chopped, without secret ingredients or martial arts. Newport hosts a chowder competition every June. The International Chili Society compiles information on chili competitions ranging from “Sam’s Town Chili Showdown” in Robinsonville, Mississippi to “Chili on the Green” in Fairfield, Oregon.

They are hardly iron chefs, and the impetus to watch or participate in the local cook-off is not what makes it enjoyable to watch celebrity chef battles or play Iron Chef America on Wii. Today’s regional contestants may fancy themselves Bobby Flay, channeling some of the spectacle of increasingly popular (and stylized) televised chef battles—one judge was a one-time contestant herself, on the Next Food Network Star, and her inclusion in the panel has garnered a lot of excitement—but the initial popularity of these shows perhaps stems from more deeply rooted tradition at church hall chili joints.

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Six minutes. Kevin presents his chowder (“with a little cayenne, a little chipoltee”) to the judges. He calls it Heaven and Hell. It’s hyperbolic, but he has caught on to the power of branding that the event not so subtly intimates. As the Hood® name evokes a reliable simplicity, the name of a dish must have durability beyond presentation to the judges.

Orange Kiss-Me Cake, Tunnel of Fudge, French Silk Pie. These all entered the American culinary lexicon as Blue Ribbon Desserts when they won the oldest and most established of American cooking contests, the Pillsbury Bake-Off. What began in 1949 as a celebration of the brand’s eightieth birthday has become an institution, with spots on the Martha Stewart Show, a national blogging community of home cooks, and a $1 million prize. None of the winning women or men (it took until 1996, but a man did win) are remembered, but the snappy dish names are. The prize winning recipes are disseminated, to be replicated in millions of households across America, or, in the case of the Hood® Cook-Off, across New England; the semifinalist recipes are published online with no mention of the home cook who created each one.

A sampling of past semifinalists does not lend itself well to quick ten-times repetition: Noggy Berry-Buckle; Fruity Brickle Breakfast Biscuit Blintzes; Eva’s Cheesy Spinach Palacsinta; Sassy Shrimp Court Bouillon; Maple Mini Rice Pies; Mystic Magic Chocolate Tart; Citrus-Lime Holy Guacamole; and Crispy Apple Pie Ravioli with Spiked Whipped Cream.

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Zero minutes. The cowbell sounds. The contest is over, and all of the contestants have been done for minutes. In the absence of any momentous conclusion, Billy ropes the audience into a call and response of the sponsoring brand’s slogan: “Always Good, Always Hood!”® As we shuffle goodie bags and coupons to stand up and join in the cheer, the woman next to me remarks gleefully, “It’s like the seventh inning stretch!” Her companion wants to know the score of the football game.

The judges’ comments range from ecstatic—as in the Johnson and Wales instructor at Mary Jo’s ability to craft a quenelle, a delicate oval of cream—to noncommittal. In response to Kevin’s dish, which had some judges pulling cheese from their teeth: “There’s a lot going on.” The only negative comment, that Jean’s dish might need more salt, was quickly dispelled by another judge. The competition is a friendly one—everyone could have won, but for the sake of calling it a cook-off, let’s just pick one.

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While the judges are deliberating, the contestants clean their stations, chat with family members, wait. Mary Jo throws back a shot of limoncello before passing around an extra tart to the supporters gathered around her station.

The event is celebrating the food of this local community, but another gloss is evaded, that of urban foodies. This is the other kind of local food, bought at Shaw’s and not Whole Foods. The recipe titles invented by the contestants are longwinded, not because they tout the names of area farms like tasting profiles, but because a little alliteration acknowledges aspirations toward elegance, here in this swanky location next to the Westin Hotel. The visitors might make a weekend of it, “go to that water thing,” as Billy knowingly suggests, but at the end of the event, they will take their VIP goodie bags with coupons and a box of pasta and head home.

Hood® has fifteen manufacturing locations around the country and produces nonsensical products like fat-free half and half, but it remains a neighborhood icon. As their public relations team has taken pains to express, the first Hood dairy farm was started in 1846 in Derry, NH, where today, a shopping center and a school still carry the Hood name. In Boston, the ice cream stand outside the Children’s Museum is in the form of a gigantic milk bottle. However vestigial or caricatured the traces might be, the white letters on red still speak to something close. This is the local that flies in blimp form over Fenway Park, emblazoned with the letters HOOD®, the chunky chowder kind, with x-tra American cheese and regular reminders of the score.

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“Are those really confetti cannons? I was making that up!” Billy is in disbelief, but they really are. The judges have made their decisions and the anticlimax of the event will burst in a cloud of colored paper and the declaration of a winning cook.

The contestants line up, facing the audience and the cameras. But before revealing the third, second, and first place winners, an announcement: The Patriots have won in overtime.

Billy clears his throat.

3rd place: Jean Dziedzinksi!

The audience bursts out in applause. I look about, and I’m not the only one grinning.

2nd place: Forrest White!

I can’t help but feel relieved. I know Mary Jo has got it in the bag. She made a quenelle, for heaven’s sake, and after four years!

1st place: Mary Jo Fletcher LaRocco!

The confetti canons erupt. Star-shaped spotlights circle above. Everyone claps along to Cool and the Gang’s “Celebrate Good Times,” bits of paper are landing on the runner-ups’ head, and the giant check wobbles between the Hood® brand manager and Mary Jo.

 

Belle Cushing B’13 can be spotted in the live audience when the Cook-Off airs on TV Diner with host, Billy Costa, on November 10.

 

One Comment

  1. Mary Jo LaRocco says:

    Belle – just saw your article!! What a great summary of the Cookoff…thanks for writing this! You are a talented writer – all the best to you!!

    Reply

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